The terms and definitions on this page are relevant to criminal cases in the State of
U.S.A., unless noted otherwise. Criminal laws & procedures in other states and countries may be
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This page provides general information that is intended, but not guaranteed, to be correct, complete
& up-to-date. Do not rely, for legal advice, on information given on this page or any externally
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your legal affairs, consult a competent attorney in your area.
Criminal defendant being found "not guilty" of the crime. An acquittal is not a
declaration of the accused "innocence"; it is a verdict that a Prosecutor failed to prove the
accused guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Postponing or rescheduling a case or court session until another date or time.
Generally, a final judicial determination of a case. In juvenile delinquency cases, it is the
equivalent of a 'conviction' in adult criminal cases, when the court formally takes jurisdiction of the minor due
to a plea or a trial verdict.
A person who is no longer deemed to
be a minor. In Texas, a person becomes an adult for criminal cases when they
turn 17. In some instances a person younger than the age of 17 may be certified
to stand trial as an adult in a criminal action.
Actions contested by opposing parties.
A person who makes out an affidavit.
Written statement of fact that is verified by oath or affirmation before a notary public
or officer having authority to administer oaths. (Affidavits are not admissible in criminal trials or
hearings in lieu of testimony because the opposing party has no opportunity to cross-examine the
In the practice of the appellate courts, when a lower court order is declared valid and will stand as rendered in the lower court.
A brief filed by an amicus ("friend of the court") in support of a party in a lawsuit or pending appeal.
The court may have to give the amicus permission to file the brief, and may limit the issues.
"Friend of the Court" (Latin). A party who volunteers information on some aspect of a case or
law to assist the court in its deliberation.
A party's written response to a legal pleading, such as a motion or brief.
Request to a supervisory court, usually composed of a panel of judges, to change the legal
ruling of a lower court. To make such a request is "to appeal" or "to take an appeal."
One who appeals is called the Appellant; the opposing party is the Appellee.
The record sent by the trial court to the appellate court of what happened at the trial court. This
includes a copy of the
docket, the case file (court documents) and transcripts of court
A document filed with the court, and provided to other parties, by an attorney advising that the
attorney is representing a specific individual.
The party appealing a decision or judgment to a higher court.
In a criminal matter this usually the defendant.
A court that reviews a lower court's decisions. County
Courts at Law is the appellate court for Justice of the Peace or Municipal court cases. The
Third Court of Appeals in Austin, Texas is the appellate court for County
Court at Law and District Court
cases from Comal County. The Texas Supreme Court is the appellate court for Court of Appeals decisions
involving civil matters and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is the appellate
court for Court of Appeals decisions in criminal cases.
The party responding to an appeal filed in a higher court.
In a criminal matter this is usually the State of Texas by and through the
District Attorney's office.
Criminal defendant's first appearance before a judge. The primary purpose is to inform the
defendant of the charge(s) he is facing. The judge may also determine an appropriate
bail and decide on a request for court-appointed counsel.
To take into custody by legal authority.
An order issued by a judge or magistrate to a peace officer requiring the arrest of a named person.
Lawyer hired by the elected
District Attorney to prosecute cases within that county as representatives
of the People of the State of Texas.
A lawyer. A person authorized to practice law in a state to represent the legal interests of another person.
Bond money paid to a court by or on behalf of a criminal defendant as
security that, when released from jail, the defendant will appear at all future hearings. The court can also
set conditions of release (i.e., no contact with the victim, no alcohol consumption, etc.) If another person
posts the bail money, then that third party vouches that the defendant will appear at future court dates.
Bail can be forfeited if the defendant fails to appear or violates release conditions.
A court employee who assists the judge in maintaining order in the courthouse, and who is responsible
for the custody of a jury.
Trial held before a judge and without a jury. The judge determines the facts.
A promise or contract to do or perform a specified act, or pay a penalty for failure to perform.
This is usually guaranteed by a 'surety', who promises to pay if the 'principal' defaults, or by paying
a cash bond.
In criminal cases, 'bond' means the same thing as 'bail': a financial obligation signed by
the accused or a surety intended to guarantee the defendant's future appearances in court. The amount of
the bond is set by a judge or magistrate. The bond can include conditions of release (i.e., no contact with
the victim, no alcohol consumption, etc.) Factors influencing the amount of bond set include the seriousness
of the charge, the defendant's criminal history, and the defendant's ties to the community.
Written arguments submitted by the lawyers for each side in a case explaining facts and/or law supporting
their respective positions (why the court should decide the case or a particular part of a case in favor of
that lawyer's client).
Crime punishable by death.
Method for striking prospective jurors. The Michigan Court Rules allow two types of
juror challenges: for cause (unlimited number, the grounds for which must fit reasons specified
in the Texas Court Rules) and peremptory (limited number depending on the severity of the crime
on trial, the grounds for which do not have to be specified). Appropriate challenges for cause exist when the
juror is shown to be biased for or against a party, is related to a trial participant, etc. No reason need be
announced for a peremptory challenge, although a purely racially-based challenge is not permitted.
A party can also "challenge the array", which questions the qualifications of the entire jury
array (panel) summoned for jury duty (e.g., racial discrimination).
A judge's instructions to a jury. Information on the laws relating to the case, definitions of
legal terms, and explanations of procedures relevant to the jury's duties.
Proceedings in the family division of the
district court regarding children under age 18 who are abused or neglected.
A division in the
of Family and Protective Services.
Children's Protective Services
workers investigate reports of suspected child abuse or neglect.
They can also provide services to families in an effort to prevent abuse or neglect.
Indirect evidence that implies something occurred but does not directly prove it. Evidence that suggests
something by implication.
Example: circumstantial evidence of
includes proof that the defendant-employee
had access to missing money and made several big-ticket purchases in cash around the time of the alleged embezzlement.
The law does not distinguish between the weight to be given to direct and circumstantial evidence. Jurors are instructed
that they may give more weight to circumstantial evidence than direct evidence if they find the circumstantial evidence
to be more credible.
Case between private litigants concerning personal wrongs, generally where the losing
party must compensate the prevailing party with money or other property. Examples of civil cases
include divorces, personal injury, landlord-tenant, small claims and contract or property disputes.
A civil plaintiff may be also be asking the court to tell the defendant to stop some behavior or to
do a specific thing. Both the plaintiff and the defendant may be represented by an attorney, unless
the case is filed as a
small claims case.
A grouping of statutes, relating to a particular subject matter and arranged in classified order. Usually created
by enactment of a new statute by the legislature embodying all the old statutes relating to the subject and including changes
necessitated by court decisions. In some cases, the change would result in a new statutory concept. Examples: the Juvenile Code,
Mental Health Code, etc.
One who participates in the commission of a crime, along with another person.
Body of legal principles which
derives its authority solely from usages, customs or court decisions since
ancient times, or from the judgments and decrees of courts recognizing,
affirming, and enforcing such usages and customs, particularly the ancient
unwritten law of England. Common law is distinguished from "statutory law",
which is enacted by a legislative body such as Congress or a state legislature.
Common law is the basis for the legal systems in every state except Louisiana.
Upon conviction for multiple crimes, a criminal sentence served at the same time as another
criminal sentence, rather than one after the other. The person is release at the expiration of the longest
A statement by person, either oral or written, admitting that he or she committed a certain offense.
Upon conviction for multiple
crimes, criminal sentences that must be served one after the other, rather than
at the same time. Consecutive sentences may only be imposed if there is specific
statutory authority to do so. In some circumstances, consecutive sentences may
be imposed within the judge's discretion (e.g., when a person is convicted of a
new offense committed while on parole status).
Judge or jury's decision that the accused person is guilty of the crime.
One who gives advice, especially legal advice.
Government entity authorized to resolve legal disputes. Judges sometimes use "court"
to refer to themselves in the third person, as in "the court has read the briefs." Courts and
judges are part of the Judicial Branch of government.
Legal counsel assigned by the court
to represent an indigent criminal defendant. A court-appointed attorney is not
necessarily a "free" attorney; the court can order that some or all of the
attorney's bill be reimbursed.
Guardian ad Litem.
"Intermediate" appellate court between the
Texas Supreme Court or the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the Texas trial courts. Final decisions from
a County Court at Law or District Court hearing may be appealed to the
Court of Appeals.
Court of Appeals judges are elected for 6-year terms.
Visit the Texas Court of Appeals
Person who makes a word-for-word record (either through stenography/short-hand or audio/video
recording) of what is said in a court proceeding and can produce a
transcript of the
proceedings upon request. Michigan court reporters or recorders must be trained and certified.
An act in violation of criminal law: an offense against the State of
Charge filed by a prosecutor
against a defendant concerning violation of a criminal law. The act of violating
a criminal law is an offense against the community, not a private wrong.
Examples of criminal cases include theft, and murder.
Questioning of a witness by a party other than the one who called that witness to the witness stand, to test the truthfulness of the
witness's testimony, to further develop it or to otherwise expand on it.
Person who has been formally charged with committing a crime.
The attorney representing the accused (defendant).
Discussions held by the jury, after all evidence has been presented, to decide the outcome of a case.
Oral statement made before an officer authorized by law to administer oaths. Such statements
are used in civil cases to examine potential witnesses, to obtain discovery, or to be used later in trial.
Depositions are generally not used in criminal cases.
Evidence that stands on its own to prove an alleged fact, such as testimony by a teller
that she saw the defendant pointing a gun at her and heard him demand money during a bank
Questioning of a witness by the party who first called the witness to the stand.
A written list of all important acts done in court in the conduct of an individual case, from
beginning to end. This term is also commonly, but improperly, applied to the case calendar (a list of
cases set for a hearing by a court on a specific day).
Number assigned by the court's clerk to identify each case.
The fundamental procedural rules that guarantee "fair play" in the conduct of legal proceedings
(e.g., the right to notice and a hearing, the right to an impartial judge and jury, the right to present evidence
on one's own behalf, the right to confront one's accuser, the right to be represented by counsel, etc.).
Information presented in testimony, documents, physical objects or other things that are used to prove or
disprove facts relevant to a case.
circumstantial evidence, and
Latin term that means "by or for one party."
Refers to situations in which only one party
(and not the adversary) appears before a judge. Such meetings are often forbidden.
Order entered without giving the party affected by the order an opportunity to be heard in court before
the order is issued. An emergency order used when one party could be irreparably harmed by waiting for a hearing
date. The orders are generally short-term, and hearings are scheduled soon to give the other party a chance to be heard.
The formal process of delivering a person found in one state (or nation) to authorities in another state (or nation) where that
person has been accused or convicted of a crime.
Crime carrying more than one year possible incarceration, unless it is specified as a
misdemeanor. Felonies are tried in District Court.
Real or personal property to which a person loses his right of possession due to the commission of a crime
or by way of an assessed penalty. A forfeiture may be either administrative or judicial.
Reduction in time served in county jails
or in state prison as a reward for good behavior.
Group of citizens convened in a criminal case to consider the prosecutor's evidence and determine
whether probable cause exists to prosecute a suspect for a felony.
A person with the legal duty and power to care for the person of another individual who is: a) under age 18; or,
b) a legally incapacitated person. A guardian may be appointed by a court or designated in a will.
Person appointed by the court to protect the legal interests of an infant or an incompetent adult,
or a missing person who is involved in a court case.
The court will appoint a guardian ad litem in cases of juvenile abuse or neglect.
The "GAL" may be an attorney.
Writ (order) to bring a person before a court. In its most common usage, the writ directs a
warden or jailer to bring a prisoner or person detained so that the court may determine whether such
person is lawfully confined. It may also be used to bring a person in custody before the court to give
testimony, or to be prosecuted.
Second-hand evidence not arising from personal knowledge of the witness but generally from repetition of what the witness has heard others say.
Statement made outside of court (i.e., not from the witness stand at the present proceeding)
that is offered as evidence to prove that the statement was true, not merely
that the statement was made. Second-hand evidence not arising from personal knowledge of a witness, but
generally from repeating what the witness heard others say outside the courtroom.
Hearsay is generally inadmissible, but dozens of long-established exceptions have been approved; the exceptions are
based on circumstances where the out-of-court statements carry a likelihood of trustworthiness (e.g.,
deathbed statements, self-incriminating statements, statements made to doctors about medical conditions,
excited utterances, etc.).
A criminal jury that cannot reach a unanimous verdict.
A court-approved agreement by a prosecutor to not prosecute a person, in return for providing criminal evidence against
another person or party.
Process of calling something into question, as in "impeaching the testimony of a
witness." Impeachment generally challenges a witness' credibility (believability) with evidence of bias,
prior inconsistent statements, etc.
In chambers; in private. A hearing or inspection of documents that takes place outside the presence of the jury and public,
usually in a judge's office.
Formal accusation of a felony, issued by a
grand jury after
considering evidence presented by a prosecutor.
Document on which criminal
misdemeanor charges are filed in County Courts at Law or after a waiver of
indictment in a felony case.
Order of the court prohibiting (or compelling) the performance of a specific act to prevent
irreparable damage or injury.
Government official with authority to decide lawsuits brought before courts.
Legal authority of a court to hear and decide a case before it, which depends on the type of case and how
closely connected the parties are to the county where the court is located.
The geographic area over which the authority to interpret and apply the law extends (e.g., the court's authority
to decide cases, the prosecutor's authority to issue criminal charges, etc.). (See also
In delinquency and abuse/neglect cases, the court's authority to enter orders affecting a youth and his/her parents or household.
Persons selected according to law and sworn to inquire into and declare a verdict on matters of
Misdemeanor cases use 6-person
juries. Felony cases use 12-person juries.
Youth under the age of 17.
An attorney. A person authorized to practice law in a state to represent the legal interests of another person.
A question that instructs a witness how to answer, or suggests which answer is desired. These questions are usually
Used generally, this title means a judge. In
Texas, it can also be a quasi-judicial officer who has the authority to set
A warning given by police before custodial interrogation. It advises the person that he does
not have to talk to police, and his silence will not be held against him, and his right to legal counsel
before talking to police.
Refers to a US Supreme Court decision: Miranda v Arizona, 384 US 436 (1966).
Crime carrying maximum jail time of one year or less.
An erroneous or invalid trial; a trial declared by a judge to be defective and void, generally due to prejudicial
error in the proceedings or a "hung jury" (a jury that could not agree upon a verdict).
A plea in which the facts supporting the crime's elements come from a source other than the defendant's own
words in court (generally, from police investigation reports, witnesses statements, photographs, etc.). A
"nolo" plea is used when the defendant cannot recall his criminal actions (sometimes due to intoxication),
or his verbal plea from a traditional guilty plea would be used in a potential civil law suit. Regardless, the plea
is treated the same as a guilty plea, and the defendant is treated by a sentencing judge the same as if he was convicted
via a guilty plea or trial verdict.
Latin term meaning "I will not contest it.". See
No Contest Plea.
Taking exception to a statement or procedure in trial. Used to call the court's attention to improper evidence or procedure.
Decision of a court made in writing.
A judge's decision to not allow an objection to prevail. Also, a decision by a higher court that a lower court's
decision was in error.
Conditional release from prison of a convict before the expiration of a felony sentence.
The parolee (the released person) need not serve the remainder of his incarceration, unless he violates
terms of his release. The parolee is under the supervision of a state parole officer during the parole period.
Knowingly making a material false statement about a material fact while under oath to tell the truth.
Defendant's response to a criminal charge (guilty, not guilty or
A negotiated agreement between the Prosecutor and the defense counsel for the defendant to plead guilty
or no-contest under certain terms and conditions. The agreement could include the defendant pleading
to all pending charges with a sentence agreement, or pleading to less than all of his pending charges,
or pleading to a less serious charge, or pleading guilty to one or more pending charges in exchange for
dismissal of other unrelated charges. All plea agreements must be approved by the judge. Plea
agreements are a means of arriving at a reasonable disposition without the necessity of a trial.
Asking jurors individually, after their verdict has been announced, whether they agreed (and still
agree) with announced verdict. This occurs in the courtroom before the judge discharges the jury.
Court decision in an earlier case with facts and law similar to a dispute currently before
a court. Precedent will ordinarily govern the decision of a later similar case, unless a party can show
that it was wrongly decided or that it differed in some significant way.
Discretionary sentencing option for most misdemeanor and felony convictions where the
defendant avoids some/all incarceration, and is released back into the community under the supervision
of a probation officer for a specific time period, with rules to follow. Some rules are standard
(i.e., to not violate any more laws), and others are specific to the defendant or crime (i.e., alcohol
counseling when convicted of driving while intoxicated). If the defendant violates any term of probation,
the assigned probation officer (or the Prosecutor) can ask the sentencing judge to impose additional
penalties after a probation violation hearing.
An official written directive from a court ordering that a criminal defendant is
sentenced to a term of probation. The document is signed by the judge and the defendant. It
includes all legal conditions (both standard and special conditions) with which the defendant
must comply during probation, including payment of fines, costs, restitution, etc.
Legal services provided to a client free of charge.
Person who represents himself/herself in court without an attorney. The term comes from the
Latin phrase in propria persona.
Nullify, void or declare invalid. To overthrow or vacate.
Texas Courts no longer allow the State or a defendant to
proffer a definition of reasonable doubt to a jury. In the past it had
been defined as
a doubt based on reason and common sense after a careful and impartial
consideration of all the evidence in the case. It is the kind of doubt that
would make a reasonable person hesitate to act in the most important of his own
Evidence having any tendency to make the
existence of a fact that is of consequence to the determination of the
action more or less probable than it would be without the evidence. Texas Rules
of Evidence 401.
To send a case back to the court from which it came for further proceedings. This typically happens when an
appellate court sends a case back to a lower court with instructions on further proceedings.
Payments ordered by the judge to repay victims for economic losses incurred as the
result of the crime (property loss or injuries). Does not include compensation for pain and
suffering, emotional distress or other non-economic damages that can result in compensation
through a civil law suit.
Written order from a judge or
magistrate that an officer may search
a specific location for specified items which, if found, can be seized by the government for possible
use in court as evidence. Search warrants are issued upon a showing of
that the items are in the place to be searched, and are evidence of a crime.
Punishment ordered by a court for a defendant convicted of a crime.
To separate. A procedure to shelter a trial participant from outside influences.
The term most frequently applies to witnesses, and prevents them from watching court proceedings and testimony (or
talking outside the courtroom to other witnesses about the case) before they actually testify. In very rare cases, a
jury can be sequestered during part or all of a trial.
Conference between the judge and lawyers held out of earshot of the jury and spectators.
Party's right to make a legal claim, or to seek judicial enforcement of a right or duty.
Doctrine that once a principle of law has been determined to be applicable to certain facts,
that principle will be followed in future cases involving substantially identical facts.
An association for attorneys licensed to practice law in
Texas. All attorneys, including prosecutors,
must be a member of the State Bar in order to practice law in Texas.
Visit the State Bar of Texas web
Law passed by a legislature.
Court order requiring a person to appear in court and give testimony as a
and/or to produce documents. An employer cannot act upon or threaten to discharge or discipline a witness for missing
work to testify in court when subpoenaed.
Court order to produce documents or records.
A judge's decision to allow an objection or motion to prevail.
Evidence presented orally and under oath by witnesses during trials or other court proceedings.
Official record of the testimony taken in a trial or hearing. A written, word-for-word
(verbatim) record of what was said.
To set aside. Example: a court may vacate an earlier order.
Geographic location (e.g., city or county) where an event occurred. A "change of venue" happens
when a case is moved to a court in another county or to a court having other
powers ... generally because the case should have been filed there originally, or for the convenience of the parties/witnesses,
or because a fair trial cannot be had in the original court's location.
Decision of a jury or a judge on the issues submitted to the court for determination.
Person or entity who suffers direct or threatened physical, financial, or emotional harm as a
result of the commission of a crime.
Process of jury selection,
generally involving the judge and attorneys asking potential jurors about their
experiences and beliefs. The purpose is to determine if the jurors are
appropriate for sitting on the case at hand, particularly their willingness to
decide the case only on the evidence presented in court. This French term means "to speak the
Intentionally giving up a right. Example: a defendant waiving his right to remain silent to be interviewed by police.
Court order authorizing an arrest or search.
Person who comes to court (sometimes by
subpoena) and swears under oath
to give truthful evidence about information he/she has seen, heard or otherwise experienced.