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Criminal Law terms

TermDefinition
acquittal Judgment that a criminal defendant has not been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
appeal A request made after a trial, asking another court (usually the court of appeals) to decide whether the trial was conducted properly.
bench trial Trial without a jury in which a judge decides the facts. In a jury trial, the jury decides the facts.
common law The legal system that originated in England and is now in use in the United States.
discovery Lawyers' examination, before trial, of facts and documents in possession of the opponents to help the lawyers prepare for trial.
felony A crime carrying a penalty of more than a year in prison.
grand jury A body of citizens who listen to evidence of criminal allegations, which are presented by the government, and determines whether there is probable cause to believe the offense was committed.
habeas corpus A writ that is often used to bring a prisoner before the court to determine the legality of his imprisonment. A prisoner wanting to argue that there is not sufficient cause to be imprisoned would file a writ of habeas corpus.
hearsay Statements by a witness who did not see or hear the incident in question but learned about it through secondhand information such as another’s statement, a newspaper, or a document.
jurisdiction (1) The legal authority of a court to hear and decide a case. The plaintiff initially decides where to bring the suit, but in some cases, the defendant can seek to change the court.
Concurrent jurisdiction When two courts have simultaneous responsibility for the same case. Some issues can be heard in both state and federal courts.
jurisdiction (2) The geographic area over which the court has authority to decide cases. A federal court in one state, for example, can usually only decide a case that arose from actions in that state.
jury Persons selected according to law and sworn to inquire into and declare a verdict on matters of fact. State court juries can be as small as six jurors in some cases. Federal juries for civil suits must have six jurors criminal suits must have twelve.
misdemeanor Usually a petty offense, a less serious crime than a felony, punishable by less than a year of confinement.
mistrial An invalid trial caused by fundamental error. When a mistrial is declared, the trial must start again, beginning with the selection of a new jury.
nolo contendere No contest. Has the same effect as a plea of guilty as far as the criminal sentence is concerned, but the plea may not be considered an admission of guilt for any other purpose.
opinion A judge's written explanation of a decision of the court.
plea In a criminal case, the defendant's statement pleading "guilty" or "not guilty" in answer to the charges in open court.
plea bargain Agreement between the defendant and prosecutor where the defendant pleads guilty in exchange for a concession by the prosecutor.
precedent A court decision in an earlier case with facts and law similar to a dispute currently before a court.
preliminary hearing A hearing where the judge decides whether there is enough evidence to require the defendant to go to trial.
probable cause An amount of suspicion leading one to believe certain facts are probably true. The Fourth Amendment requires probable cause for the issuance of an arrest or search warrant.
pro se A Latin term meaning "on one's own behalf"; in courts, it refers to persons who present their own cases without lawyers.
search warrant Orders that a specific location be searched for items, which if found, can be used in court as evidence. Search warrants require probable cause in order to be issued.
sequester To separate. Sometimes juries are sequestered from outside influences during their deliberations.
subpoena A command to a witness to appear and give testimony.
tort A civil wrong or breach of a duty to another person as outlined by law. A very common tort is negligent operation of a motor vehicle that results in property damage and personal injury in an automobile accident.
venue The geographical location in which a case is tried.
voir dire The process by which judges and lawyers select a petit jury from among those eligible to serve by questioning them. "to speak the truth."
writ of certiorari An order issued by the Supreme Court directing the lower court to transmit records for a case for which it will hear on appeal.
Created by: phurlbut