Office of the State's Attorney

Worcester County, Maryland

Terms and Definitions

Acquittal

A jury verdict that a criminal defendant is not guilty, or the finding of a judge that the evidence is insufficient to support a conviction.

Affidavit

A written or printed statement made under oath.

Answer

The formal written statement by a defendant in a civil case that responds to a complaint, articulating the grounds for defense.

Appeal

A request made after a trial by a party that has lost on one or more issues that a higher court review the decision to determine if it was correct.

Arraignment

A proceeding in which a criminal defendant is brought into court, told of the charges in an indictment or information, and asked to plead guilty or not guilty.

Bail

The release, prior to trial, of a person accused of a crime, under specified conditions designed to assure that person's appearance in court when required. Also can refer to the amount of bond money posted as a financial condition of pretrial release.

Bench trial

A trial without a jury, in which the judge serves as the fact-finder.

Brief

A written statement submitted in a trial or appellate proceeding that explains one side's legal and factual arguments.

Community service

A special condition the court imposes that requires an individual to work – without pay – for a civic or nonprofit organization.

Complaint

A written statement that begins a civil lawsuit, in which the plaintiff details the claims against the defendant.

Conviction

A judgment of guilt against a criminal defendant.

Counsel

Legal advice; a term also used to refer to the lawyers in a case.

Damages

Money that a defendant pays a plaintiff in a civil case if the plaintiff has won. Damages may be compensatory (for loss or injury) or punitive (to punish and deter future misconduct).

Defendant

In a civil case, the person or organization against whom the plaintiff brings suit; in a criminal case, the person accused of the crime.

Deposition

An oral statement made before an officer authorized by law to administer oaths. Such statements are often taken to examine potential witnesses, to obtain discovery, or to be used later in trial. See discovery.

Discovery

Procedures used to obtain disclosure of evidence before trial.

Dismissal with prejudice

Court action that prevents an identical lawsuit from being filed later.

Dismissal without prejudice

Court action that allows the later filing.

Felony

A serious crime, usually punishable by at least one year in prison.

Grand jury

A body of citizens who listen to evidence of criminal allegations, which is presented by the prosecutors, and determine whether there is probable cause to believe an individual committed an offense.

Indictment

The formal charge issued by a grand jury stating that there is enough evidence that the defendant committed the crime to justify having a trial; it is used primarily for felonies.

Judge

An official of the judicial system with authority to decide lawsuits brought before courts.

Judgment

The official decision of a court finally resolving the dispute between the parties to the lawsuit.

Jury

The group of persons selected to hear the evidence in a trial and render a verdict on matters of fact.

Misdemeanor

An offense punishable by one year of imprisonment or less.

Mistrial

An invalid trial, caused by fundamental error. When a mistrial is declared, the trial must start again with the selection of a new jury.

Motion

A request by a litigant to a judge for a decision on an issue relating to the case.

Nolo contendere

No contest. A plea of nolo contendere has the same effect as a plea of guilty, as far as the criminal sentence is concerned, but may not be considered as an admission of guilt for any other purpose.

Plaintiff

A person or business that files a formal complaint with the court.

Plea

In a criminal case, the defendant's statement pleading “guilty”, “not guilty”, or “nolo contendere” in answer to the charges.

Probation

Sentencing option in the federal courts. With probation, instead of sending an individual to prison, the court releases the person to the community and orders him or her to complete a period of supervision monitored by a U.S. probation officer and to abide by certain conditions.

Sanction

A penalty or other type of enforcement used to bring about compliance with the law or with rules and regulations.

Sentence

The punishment ordered by a court for a defendant convicted of a crime.

Settlement

Parties to a lawsuit resolve their dispute without having a trial. Settlements often involve the payment of compensation by one party in at least partial satisfaction of the other party's claims, but usually do not include the admission of fault.

Subpoena

A command, issued under a court's authority, to a witness to appear and give testimony.

Summary judgment

A decision made on the basis of statements and evidence presented for the record without a trial. It is used when it is not necessary to resolve any factual disputes in the case. Summary judgment is granted when – on the undisputed facts in the record – one party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Testimony

Evidence presented orally by witnesses during trials or before grand juries.

Venue

The geographic area in which a court has jurisdiction. A change of venue is a change or transfer of a case from one judicial district to another.

Verdict

The decision of a trial jury or a judge that determines the guilt or innocence of a criminal defendant, or that determines the final outcome of a civil case.

Warrant

Court authorization, most often for law enforcement officers, to conduct a search or make an arrest.

Witness

A person called upon by either side in a lawsuit to give testimony before the court or jury.

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