Glossary of Vernaculars for the Criminal Justice Verticals
All of a sudden, you're living your worst nightmare. You've been
busted! Now you're facing a set of complex challenges as frighteningly
foreign as any you've ever experienced, for stakes as enormous as
years of your freedom. You need every advantage you can possibly muster
just to survive the overwhelm of this grueling ordeal. First, you
faced the shockingly brutal reality of your arrest, booking, and lock-up.
As that horrible shockwave began to subside, leaving you nothing but
numb, the second shockwave engulfed you. While apologizing profusely
to family and friends for your gross imposition, you repeatedly recall
your embarrassing tale, while you plead for bail money and a signer's
support to spring you from jail. Your impatience is mounting, you've
got to get out, they've all got their questions, a story with no fault
is bound to cast doubt. After numerous recastings, your long tale's
told right, breathing fresh air you realize, victory's in persuasion
-- words win this fight. With that lesson in hand, take some time
to review the specialized vernacular of the legal system's verticals
that for centuries has sustained the elitists' control of justice's
hallowed hall while continuing to maintain the status quo of the educated
over the masses. Boil a royal stew, Magna Carta, stir in concepts
called divine, and the justice that you've cooked up, even eight wise
ones can't define. As you can concentrate on retaining the most effective
counsel possible and then work to build the strongest case possible
for your upcoming day in court, pay special attention to the crucially
careful selection of words chosen to portray your actions and intentions,
for your future just may depend upon it.
AFFIDAVIT: An individual's written statement, given voluntarily,
under oath, before a notary public or official authorized to administer
ANSWER: A formal statement, generally written, stating the defense
of a legal case.
APPEAL: A request to take a case to a higher court for review. No
new evidence may be introduced during the appellate process; the reviewing
court considers only whether errors occurred during prior proceedings.
APPEARANCE BOND: In a criminal proceeding, a document representing
a commitment guaranteeing that an individual, accused of a crime,
will appear in court whenever ordered to do so until the matter at
hand is resolved.
APPELLATE COURT: A court having jurisdiction of appeals-not a trial
APPELLATE JURISDICTION: The power of a court to review a case that
has already been tried by a lower court.
ARRAIGNMENT: The accused is brought before the court to plead to the
charge against him.
ATTORNEY: A lawyer; one who is licensed to act as a representative
for another in a legal proceeding; an individual licensed to practice
ACQUITTAL: A finding by a judge or jury that a person tried for committing
a crime is not guilty.
BAIL: To set free a person arrested or imprisoned (pending trial or
resolution of an appeal), in exchange for security such as cash. Bail
is forfeited if the person fails to appear in court as directed.
BOND: A written instrument in which one party (principle) agrees to
perform some act for the benefit of the second party (obliged) and
the third party (surety) agrees to pay the sum of money that has been
fixed as the penalty if the principle fails to perform. A surety bond
assures the appearance of the defendant or the payment of the defendant's
bail if the defendant fails to appear.
BOND POSTER: Person who posts an appearance bond
BOND RECALL: The accused has been returned to custody after the bonding
agent or other surety financially responsible on a previously set
bond elected to be relieved of that obligation by the court.
BONDSMAN: One who gives surety for another
BRIEF: A written document presented to the court by a lawyer setting
forth the facts of the case and the law which supports the lawyer's
BURDEN OF PROOF: In the law of evidence, the necessity, or duty of
affirmatively proving a fact or facts in a dispute.
CAPIAS: A writ commanding the arrest of a person so that he/she may
be compelled to appear before the court.
CIVIL CASE: A matter or case pertaining to the private right of an
CHARGES: A formal accusation of having committed a criminal offense.
CODE: A collection of laws arranged into chapters, table of contents,
and index, and published by legislative authority. For example, the
Iowa Code is a collection of laws approved by the Iowa legislature.
COLLATERAL SECURITY: Something of value given by, or on behalf of,
the principal to protect the surety from loss.
COMMON LAW: Law based upon previous decisions of courts.
CONCURRENCE: An agreement.
CONTEMPT BOND: Given in civil contempt cases to guarantee the principal
will obey court orders in the future.
CONTEMPT OF COURT: An act which shows disrespect for the court's authority.
Contempt usually means a person has failed to obey a court order.
Contempt can be punished by a fine or imprisonment.
CONTRACT: A mutual agreement between two or more parties, in which
each party gives up something of value but gains something else.
CONVERT: Use of the bond money to pay what the defendant was ordered
by the court to pay. The order could include victim restitution, fines
and surcharges, attorney fees, or jail fees
CONVICTION: Finding that a person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt
of committing a crime.
CRIMINAL CASE: A case concerning an act considered harmful to the
general public that is forbidden by law and punishable by fine, imprisonment,
or community service.
CUSTODY: THE STATE OF BEING DETAINED OR HELD UNDER GUARD, ESPECIALLY
BY THE POLICE.
DAMAGES: An amount of money which may be recovered in the courts by
any person who has suffered loss, detriment, or injury through the
unlawful act or negligence of another.
DECREE: A decision or order of the court. A final decree is one which
fully and finally disposes of litigation; an interlocutory decree
is a preliminary decree which disposes of a particular issue within
DEFAULT: A "default" in an action at law occurs when a defendant
fails to appear at the trial or to plead within the time allowed.
Typically, when a defendant defaults, the court enters an order in
favor of the plaintiff.
DEFENDANT: A person sued in a civil suit or accused of a crime.
DEPOSITION: The testimony of a witness not taken in open court, but
pursuant to authority given by statute or court rule to take testimony
elsewhere. Deposition testimony may be introduced as evidence in a
DISSENT: A term denoting the disagreement of one or more judges of
a court with the decision of the majority.
DISTRICT ATTORNEY: A lawyer elected or appointed to serve as a prosecutor
for the state in criminal cases.
DOCKET: A list or index of cases and case events maintained by the
clerk of court. A list of cases on a court calendar.
EVIDENCE: A fact presented before a court such as a statement of a
witness, an object, etc., that bears on or establishes a point in
EXONERATE: To remove a burden or release from a duty.
EXTRADITION: The legal process by which a person who has committed
a crime in one state and fled to another state may be returned to
the state where the crime was committed
FELONY: A crime considered to be of a graver nature than a misdemeanor.
Examples of felonies include murder, kidnapping, manslaughter, burglary,
robbery, and certain types of sexual abuse.
FORFEITURE: To surrender something as a penalty for having failed
to comply with a legally recognized obligation.
FUGITIVE: One who leaves the jurisdiction of a court or who hides
within the jurisdiction to avoid prosecution.
GRAND JURY: A group of citizens whose duty it is to inquire into a
crime to determine if an indictment against a suspected criminal is
GUARDIAN AD LITEM: Appointed by the court to represent an infant or
child in a particular litigation.
HABEAS CORPUS: "You have the body." A petition to bring
a person before a court or a judge. In most common usage, it is directed
to the official person detaining another, commanding that the person
to produce the body of the prisoner or person detained so the court
may determine if such a person had been denied his or her liberty
without the process of law.
INCARCERATION: Confinement in a jail or prison.
INDICTMENT: An accusation in writing found and issued by a grand jury,
charging that a person named has done some act, or is guilty of some
omission, which by law is a crime.
INFORMATION: A formal accusation of crime, based on an affidavit of
a person allegedly having knowledge of the offense.
INSTRUCTIONS: Directions given by the judge to the jury concerning
the law of the case.
INTERLOCUTORY: Preliminary. An interlocutory appeal involves an appeal
of a matter within a case before the case is concluded or final.
INTERROGATORIES: Written questions propounded by one party and served
on an adversary, who must provide written answers under oath; a discovery
procedure in preparation for a trial.
JURISDICTION: The right and power to interpret and apply the law.
The extent of authority or control.
JURY: A number of people, selected according to law, sworn to inquire
of certain matters of fact and declare the truth upon evidence laid
JUVENILE CASES: Matters involving children (under 18 years old), including
neglected or abused children or those accused of delinquent acts.
LIEN: An encumbrance upon property, usually as security for a debt
MANDAMUS: The name of a writ which is issued from a court of superior
jurisdiction, directed to a lower court or a public officer, commanding
the performance of a particular act.
MISDEMEANOR: Offenses considered less serious than felonies. There
are three classes of misdemeanors-simple, serious, and aggravated.
Examples of misdemeanors include minor traffic violations, thefts
of property not exceeding $500 in value, trespass, and disorderly
MOTION: An application to the court requesting action in a pending
case. Usually, a motion concerns an issue with the court's discretion.
NEGLIGENCE: The omission or neglect of reasonable precaution, care,
NOTICE OF APPEAL: A filing made with an appellate court to appeal
a ruling made by a lower court.
OPINION: A formal statement by a judge or justice of the law bearing
on a case.
ORDINANCE: A law passed by a city, town, or county legislative body.
ORIGINAL JURISDICTION: The power of a court to hear a case for the
first time instead of waiting for the case to be tried in a lower
ORIGINAL NOTICE: A document filed in court to begin a law suit. The
notice of the filing of a lawsuit served on a defendant, stating a
time in which a response must be filed.
PARTIES: The persons who are actively concerned in the prosecution
or defense of a legal proceeding.
PETITION: Written application to a court requesting a remedy available
PLAINTIFF: A person who brings an action; the party who complains
or sues in a personal action and is so named on the record.
PLEADING: A formal statement, generally written, propounding the case
of action or the defense of a legal case.
POWER OF ATTORNEY: A written instrument authorizing an agent to perform
certain acts on behalf of the principle.
PRELIMINARY HEARING: Synonymous with preliminary examinations; the
hearing given before a magistrate or a judge to determine whether
a person charged with a crime should be held for trial.
PRESENTENCE INVESTIGATION REPORT: A report, generally prepared by
a probation officer, which presents pertinent information needed by
a judge to sentence a person convicted of a crime.
PRIMA FACIE: So far as can be judged; presumably; a fact presumed
to be true unless disproved by some evidence to the contrary.
PROBABLE CAUSE: A constitutionally prescribed standard of proof; a
reasonable ground for belief in the existence of certain facts. The
burden of proof necessary for an indictment or trial information.
PROBATION: A type of criminal sentence in which an offender agrees
to certain court imposed conditions rather than go to jail or prison.
PROSECUTE: To initiate legal or criminal court action against an accused.
PROSECUTOR: One who initiates an accusation against a party suspected
of committing a crime; also one who takes charge of a case or performs
the function of a trial lawyer in a criminal case on behalf of the
state or the people.
PUBLIC DEFENDER: A lawyer employed by the government to represent
a person accused of a crime but who cannot afford to hire a lawyer.
PUNITIVE DAMAGES: Damages in excess of actual damages that are assessed
as a form of punishment. Typically, punitive damages apply when a
defendant's behavior is found to have been willful or malicious.
REBUTTAL EVIDENCE: Evidence given to explain or disprove facts given
in evidence by the opposing party.
RECOGNIZANCE: An obligation of record that is entered into before
a court or magistrate, containing a condition to perform a particular
act, such as making a court appearance.
RESTITUTION: An equitable remedy under which a person is restored
to his or her original position prior to loss or injury.
SCHEDULED VIOLATION: An offense, typically a traffic offense, in which
the exact amount of fine is set by law. (See Uniform Citation)
SENTENCE: Judgment formally pronounced by a judge upon defendant after
the defendant's conviction in the criminal prosecution.
SERVICE OF PROCESS: The act of providing an opposing party with notice
of a pleading or action to assure that the opposing party is aware
of the action and is given an opportunity to appear.
STATUTE: A law adopted by the legislature.
STIPULATION: An agreement by attorneys on opposite sides of a case
as to any manner pertaining to the proceedings or trial; stipulations
must be in writing and agreed to by the parties.
SURETY: One who undertakes to pay an accused is delivered to the proper
TESTIMONY: Spoken evidence given by a confident witness, under oath,
as distinguished by evidence derived by writings and other sources.
TORT: An injury or wrong committed against another person or another
TRANSCRIPTS: A copy of the record of a trial, hearing, or other proceeding
as prepared by a court reporter.
TRIAL INFORMATION: A document filed by the prosecutor, which states
the charges and evidence against a defendant in a criminal case.
UNIFORM CITATION: A statutory procedure which allows a peace officer
to issue a citation in lieu of arrest. Typically, uniform citations
are authorized for traffic offenses and other types of violations
that are considered less serious offenses.
VERDICT: The formal decision or finding made by a jury and accepted
by the court.
VOIRE DIRE: An inquiry of prospective jurors, by the attorneys and
by the judge, to determine if such jurors are fit for jury duty in
a given case.
WARRANT: A writ or order authorizing a law enforcement officer to
make an arrest, conduct a search, or to perform some other designated
WITNESS: One who testifies to what he or she has seen, heard, or otherwise
observed or testifies to his or her opinion based on a hypothetical
WRIT: An order issued from a court requiring the performance of a
specified act, or giving authority and commission to having it done.