Legal Terms

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A

Acquittal
a decision of “not guilty.”

Advisement
a court hearing held before a judge to inform the defendant about the charges against him/her, and his/her right to have a lawyer, and a trial. If necessary, a lawyer is appointed during this proceeding to represent the defendant at future court events.

Affidavit
a written statement of fact that is verified by oath or affirmation before a notary public or officer having the authority to administer oaths. Affidavits are not admissible in criminal trials or hearings in lieu of testimony, because the opposing party has not had an opportunity to cross-examine the person giving the statement.

Appeal
the transfer of a case from a lower court to a higher court (appellate court) to review the decision of the lower court.

Arrest warrant
an order issued by a judge or magistrate to a police officer requiring the arrest of a named person.

Assistant District Attorney
a lawyer hired by the District Attorney to assist him/her in prosecuting criminal cases; also called a prosecutor.

Attorney
a lawyer. A person authorized to practice law in a particular state.

B

Bail or Bond
a defendant’s written promise to pay a specific sum, as ordered by an officer of the court, as a condition of his/her pre-trial release from custody. The purpose of bail is to ensure the return of the defendant at future court events.

Bench trial
a trial held before a judge and without a jury. The judge determines the facts of the case.

C

Certiorari (writ of cert)
a higher court’s acceptance of a case from a lower court to review as an appeal.

Circuit Court
the court that has trial jurisdiction over all criminal misdemeanor appeals from the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court and the General District Court. The circuit court also has trial jurisdiction over all criminal felonies.

Competent to stand trial (legally competent)
a decision by the court that a defendant is able to stand trial (usually following an examination by a doctor to find out his mental condition).

Concurrent sentence
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 released at the expiration of the longest term specified.

Consecutive sentence
upon conviction for multiple crimes, criminal sentences that must be served one after the other rather than at the same time.

Conviction
a judge or jury’s decision that the accused person is guilty of a crime.

Criminal case
a charge filed by a prosecutor against a defendant concerning the violation of a criminal law. The act of violating a criminal law is an offense against the community, not a private wrong.

D

Defendant
a person accused of committing a crime. (He/she must now defend his/her actions.)

Defense attorney
the lawyer who speaks for the defendant and represents his/her interest in court.

Discovery
the right of the defendant to know what evidence the State has against him.

Disposition
the final result of a case.

District Attorney
an elected official with the authority and responsibility to represent the public interest and take legal action against persons violating state or local criminal laws. May also be known as a prosecutor.

Docket number
the number assigned by the court’s clerk to identify a case.

Domestic violence
a pattern of physically, sexually, and/or emotionally abusive behaviors used by one individual to assert power or maintain control over another, in the context of an intimate or family relationship.

Due process
the conduct of a legal proceeding according to established rules and principles to ensure the protection and enforcement of an individual’s rights.

E

Evidence
information presented in the form of testimony, documents, physical objects or other things that are used to prove or disprove facts relevant to a case.

Extradition
the formal process of delivering a person found in one state to authorities in another state where the individual has been accused or convicted of a crime.

F

Family Member
family (or household) members are defined as spouses or former spouses, regardless of whether you are presently living together, or someone with whom you have a child in common, regardless of whether you have ever been married or have ever lived together. A parent, child, step-parent, step-child, brother, sister, grandparent, grandchild, mother-in-law, father-in-law, brother-in-law, or sister-in-law who lives with you is a family or household member. Family or household members also include a person with whom you presently cohabit or with whom you have cohabited during the past 12 months, as well as any children of either of you who live with you.

Felony
a major crime that may be punished with a minimum of one year in jail or prison.

G

General District Court
the court that has trial jurisdiction over misdemeanors, as well as all traffic offenses. This court also conducts probable cause hearings (preliminary hearings) on all felony cases. There are no jury trials in General District Court.

Grand Jury
a group of citizens convened in a criminal case to consider the prosecutor’s evidence and determine if there is enough evidence to bring the defendant to trial.

Guardian Ad Litem
a person appointed by the court to protect the legal interests of a child or an incompetent adult or a missing person who is involved in a court case. The “GAL” may be an attorney.

Guilty Plea
a defendant’s admission to the court that he/she committed the crime.

Guilty Verdict
a decision by the judge or jury that the defendant committed the crime.

H

Household Member
See “Family Member

Hung jury
the situation where a jury cannot collectively agree on a verdict. When this happens, the case may be tried all over again.

I

Indictment/True Bill
a conclusion by a grand jury that a case should be tried.

J

Judge
the person in charge of the courtroom and the trial.

Juvenile
a young person who has not yet attained the age at which he or she should be treated as an adult for purposes of criminal law. In Virginia, a juvenile is any youth under the age of 18.

Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court
the court that handles cases involving persons accused of committing offenses against family or household members. This court does not conduct jury trials. A judge hears all cases.

Jurisdiction
the government’s general power to exercise authority over all persons and things within its territory. It is also a court’s power to decide a case or issue.

Jury
a group of men and women (usually 12) who must listen to and watch the trial and decide whether or not the defendant is guilty.

M

Magistrate
a court official having the authority to bring criminal charges based on the sworn testimony of an individual or a law enforcement officer. A magistrate can also set bail.

Misdemeanor
a crime that is less serious than a felony and is usually punishable by confinement in the city jail for a maximum of one year, a fine of not more than $2,500, or both.

Mistrial
a trial that is declared invalid because of an error in procedure or because a jury could not agree upon a verdict (hung jury).

Motion
a written or oral request to the court to make a specified ruling.

N

No Bill
a conclusion by a Grand Jury that a case should not be tried.

Nolle prosequi
the voluntary withdrawal of criminal charges by the prosecuting attorney (commonly called “nol pros.”)

Not Guilty Plea
a defendant’s admission to the court that he/she did not commit the crime.

Not Guilty Verdict
a decision by the court or jury that the State has not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime.

O

Order of protection
a court order that prohibits a person from having any type of contact with the victim.

P

Perjury
knowingly making a false statement about a fact while under oath to tell the truth.

Personal recognizance
the release of an arrested person from jail on his/her written promise that he/she will return to court for trial, or obey an order of the court.

Petition
a formal, written request for a court or judge to do something.

Plea
the defendant’s answer to the charge against him. If he/she pleads “guilty,” a trial is not necessary. The defendant may plead guilty to a less serious charge than the one for which he/she was indicted. If the defendant pleads “not guilty,” the case will probably be tried in court.

Plea agreement/bargain
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 judge must approve all plea agreements.

Preliminary hearing
a legal process at which the judge decides if there is enough evidence to send the defendant’s charges to the Grand Jury.

Pre-sentence investigation
a report prepared by a probation and parole officer to help the judge in deciding a sentence. A victim impact statement may be included in this report.

Probable cause
evidence that would lead a reasonable person to believe that a crime was committed by the person accused.

Probation
releasing a convicted offender instead of sending him/her to prison. An offender on probation must agree to follow certain guidelines and limits. If he/she “violates probation,” that is, fails to keep the agreement, he/she may be sent to prison.

Prosecute
to bring criminal action against a defendant.

Prosecutor
another name for the District Attorney or Assistant District Attorney.

R

Reasonable doubt
the doubt that prevents one from being firmly convinced of a defendant’s guilt or the belief of the real possibility that the defendant is not guilty.

Restitution
payments ordered by the judge to repay victims for economic losses incurred as the result of a crime (property loss or injuries). This does not include compensation for pain and suffering, emotional distress, or other non-economic damages.

Revocation (of bond or probation)
the withdrawing (taking back) of bond or probation when the defendant fails to obey the requirements of bond or probation. For example, a defendant released on bond or probation may be required to stay within the state. If he/she leaves the state, his/her bond or probation may be revoked, and he/she may be locked up in jail or prison.

S

Search warrant
a written order form a judge or magistrate that an officer may search a specific location for specified items which, if found, can be seized for possible use in court as evidence. Search warrants are issued upon a showing of probable cause that the items are in the place to be searched, and are evidence of a crime.

Sentence
the punishment or legal consequences given to a convicted defendant.

Sentencing
a hearing at which a judge imposes punishment on a convicted defendant.

Show cause order
an order directing a party to appear in court and explain why the party took (or failed to take) some action or why the court should or should not take a proposed action.

Statute
a law passed by a legislature.

Subpoena
a written, legal order telling a person to be in court at a specific time and place to give testimony, sometimes called a summons.

T

Testimony
the facts as stated by a witness. To give testimony is to “testify.”

Trial
the presentation of the facts of a case in court before a judge (bench trial), or a judge and jury (jury trial), ending with a decision regarding the defendant’s guilt or innocence.

V

Verdict
the decision of a judge or jury.

Victim
anyone suffering physical, emotional, or financial harm as a direct result of a crime.

Victim Assistant
a person whose role is to help those who are victims of crime, family members of victims of crime, and witnesses to crime. The Victim/Witness Office is a division of the District Attorney’s Office.

Victim Impact Statement
a victim’s statement that tells the judge the ways in which the crime has affected him or her, for example, emotional difficulties, monies lost, physical problems, job problems, etc.

Victim/Witness Office
an organization, located in the District Attorney’s Office, that assists victims and witnesses of crime. Trained staff provide a variety of services including emotional support, explanation of the criminal justice process, and referrals and information about community resources.

Voir dire
the jury selection process. Both the defense attorney and the prosecutor may “strike” (reject) a limited number of people, disqualifying them from serving on the jury.

W

Witness
a person who testifies under oath as to what he/she knows, has heard, or observed about a crime.

Writ
a written order issued by a court commanding someone to do or stop doing a particular act.

 

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