Legal Terms Defined

Many people are unfamiliar with legal terms, outside of the some of the most commonly used ones, such as objection. The following list of terms are explained to give you a general idea of the meanings, and are not legal advice. 


A

Accomplice: 1. A partner in a crime. 2. A person who knowingly and voluntarily participates with another in a criminal activity.

Acknowledgment: 1. A statement of acceptance of responsibility. 2. The short declaration at the end of a legal paper showing that the paper was properly executed and acknowledged.

Acquit: A court judgment determining a defendant not guilty in a criminal trial.

Action: A lawsuit brought in a state or federal court. Also called a "case"

ADA: Assistant District Attorney

Adjourn: To delay a hearing until another time.

Adjudication: Giving or pronouncing a judgment or decree; also the judgment given.

Admissible Evidence: Evidence that can be legally and properly introduced in a civil or criminal trial.

Admonish: To warn or caution. For example, the Court may caution or admonish counsel for wrong practices.

Adversary System: The trial method used in the U.S. and some other countries. This system is based on the belief that truth can best be determined by giving opposing parties full opportunity to present and establish their evidence, and to test by cross-examination the evidence presented by their adversaries. All this is done under the established rules of procedure before an impartial judge and/or jury.

Affiant: A person who makes and signs an affidavit.

Affidavit: A written statement of facts, confirmed by the oath of the party making it before a notary or officer having authority to administer oaths. For example, in criminal cases, affidavits are often used by police officers seeking to convince courts to grant a warrant to make an arrest or a search. In civil cases, affidavits of witnesses are often used to support motions for summary judgment.

Affirmative Defense: In both civil and criminal actions, it may be possible for the defendant to present a defense, which, if proven, will permit the defendant to avoid responsibility for a civil claim or a criminal charge. For example, insanity, self-defense, or entrapment. If this is done, the defendant has the burden to prove the defense.

Affirmed: In the practice of appellate courts, the word means that the decision of the trial court is correct.

Aid and Abet: To actively, knowingly, or intentionally assist another person in the commission or attempted commission of a crime.

Allegation: An accusation that the plaintiff claims will be proven in the lawsuit. A statement of the issues in a written document (a pleading) that a person is prepared to prove in court. For example, an indictment contains allegations of crimes against the defendant.

AODA: Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse

Appeal: A request made after a trial, asking a higher, or supervisory court to decide whether the trial was conducted properly. To make such a request is "to appeal" or "to take an appeal." One who appeals is called the "appellant."

Appearance: 1. "To appear" has two related meanings. An initial appearance is the act by a party, acting personally or through counsel, of acknowledging that the party has received notice of a legal proceeding. This can be done by physically coming to a scheduled court proceeding or by submitting a written acknowledgement. 2. Each time there is a scheduled court proceeding, the court records are to show which parties and attorneys were actually present, that is, "appeared."

Appellant: The party appealing a decision judgment to a higher court.

Appellate Court: A court having jurisdiction to hear appeals and review a trial court's procedure. Not a "trial court."

Appellee (ap-e-lee'): The party against whom an appeal is taken. Sometimes called a "respondent."

Arraignment: A proceeding in which an individual who is accused of committing a crime is brought into court, told of the charges, and asked to plead guilty or not guilty.

Arrest: To take into custody by legal authority.

Assault: Threat to inflict injury with an apparent ability to do so. Also, any intentional display of force that would give the victim reason to fear or expect immediate bodily harm. By contrast, the actual completion of the threatened violence is "battery."

Attorney of record: The attorney who represents a party whose name appears in the permanent records or files of a case.


B

Bail: Money or other security (such as a bail or signature bond) provided to the court to temporarily allow a person's release from jail and to assure their appearance in court. "Bail" and "bond" are often used interchangeably.

Bail Bond: An obligation signed by the accused to secure his or her presence at the trial. This obligation means that the accused may lose money by not properly appearing for the trial. Often referred to simply as "bond."

Bailiff: A County Deputy Sheriff whose duties are to keep order in the courtroom and to have custody of the jury.

Battery: Bodily harm to another by an act done with intent to cause bodily harm to that person or another without the consent of the person so harmed. The threat to use force is an "assault;" the use of it is a battery, which usually includes an assault.

Bench Trial: Trial without a jury in which a judge decides the facts and outcome.

Bench Warrant: Legal papers issued by the court itself or "from the bench" for the attachment or arrest of a person.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: The standard in a criminal case requiring that the jury be satisfied to a moral certainty that every element of a crime has been proven by the prosecution. This standard of proof does not require that the state establish absolute certainty by eliminating all doubt, but it does require that the evidence be so conclusive that all reasonable doubts are removed from the mind of the ordinary person.

Bind Over: To hold a person for trial on bond (bail) or in jail. If the judicial official conducting a hearing finds probable cause to believe the accused committed a crime, the official will bind over the accused, and order the person to stand trial.

Booking: The process of photographing, fingerprinting, and recording identifying data of a defendant. This process follows the arrest and usually occurs at the jail.

Brief: A written argument prepared by one side in a lawsuit to explain to the court its view of the facts of a case and the applicable law.

Burden of Proof: In every lawsuit, one side or the other, depending upon the issue, has the burden of proof. The party with the burden as to a particular issue must prove that the party's position is correct. The party in opposition may offer contrary evidence but need not do so. Burden of proof deals with which side must establish a point or points; "standard of proof" indicates the degree to which the point must be proven. For example, in a civil case, the burden of proof rests with the plaintiff, who must establish his or her case by such standards of proof as a "preponderance of evidence" or "clear, satisfactory and convincing evidence."


C

Caption: The heading on a legal document listing the parties, the court, the case number, and related information.

Case Law: Law established by previous decisions of appellate courts, particularly the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

Cause: A lawsuit, litigation, or action. Any question, civil or criminal, litigated or contested before a court of law.

Caveat (kav'-ee-aht): A warning; a note of caution.

CCAP: Consolidated Court Automation Program. Online electronic database of Wisconsin Circuit Court case information.

Certificate of Divorce or Annulment: A form filed with the Clerk of Circuit Courts prior to a divorce for transmittal to the State Bureau of Vital Statistics summarizing details of the parties' marriage and divorce or annulment. Also known as the "Vital Statistics" form.

Certificate of Readiness: A form issued by the Family Court Commissioner in divorce or legal separation cases advising the Judge of issues in dispute and that the case is ready to be heard by the Judge.

Certification: 1. Written attestation. 2. Authorized declaration verifying that an instrument is a true and correct copy of the original.

CF: This designation in a case number means that the case is Criminal Felony prosecution. For example, Dane County Circuit Court Case no. 04 CF 0021 is the 21st felony case filed in Dane County in year 2004.

Challenge: An objection, such as when an attorney objects at a hearing to the seating of a particular person on a civil or criminal jury.

Challenge for Cause: Objection to the seating of a particular juror for a stated reason (usually bias or prejudice for or against one of the parties in the lawsuit). The judge has the discretion to deny the challenge. This differs from "peremptory challenge."

Chambers: A judge's private office. A hearing in chambers takes place in the judge's office and may or may not be open to the public.

Charge or Count: Each specific accusation against the defendant.

Charge to the Jury: The judge's instructions to the jury concerning the law that applies to the facts of the case on trial.

CIB: Crime Information Bureau

Circuit Court: Court that has the power to hear any civil or criminal case in Dane County.

Circumstantial Evidence: Evidence that suggests indirectly that a certain fact is true.

Citation: 1. A reference to a source of legal authority. 2. A direction to appear in court, as when a defendant is cited into court, rather than arrested.

Clear, Satisfactory and Convincing Evidence: Standard of proof commonly called the "middle" burden of proof required in certain types of cases. It governs the amount of proof that must be offered in order for the plaintiff to win the case.

Clemency or Executive Clemency: Act of grace or mercy by the president or governor to ease the consequences of a criminal act, accusation, or conviction. It may take the form of "commutation" or "pardon."

Clerk: An administrative officer of the court. One responsibility of a court clerk includes keeping the minutes during a trial.

Closing Argument or Closing Statement: The persuasive speech summarizing the facts and law of the case by the opposing parties at the end of the trial. This argument is commentary about the evidence presented in the trial but it is not, itself, evidence.

CM: Designation of a case based upon an alleged Criminal Misdemeanor.

Commit: To send a person to prison, asylum, or reformatory by a court order.

Common Law: Law that derives its authority solely from usages and customs or from the judgments and decrees of courts rather than legislative action. Common law comes into being through the practice of courts considering, and attempting to follow, the decisions of earlier courts in similar circumstances.

Commutation: The reduction of a sentence, as from death to life imprisonment.

Competency: 1. In the law of evidence, the presence of those characteristics that render a witness legally fit and qualified to give testimony. 2. May also refer to the capacity of a party to participate in a legal proceeding or the lack of that capacity. See also "competency proceedings."

Competency Proceedings: Hearings conducted to determine a person's mental capacity. Within the criminal context, to determine competency to stand trial or to be sentenced or to determine whether, at the time of the offense, the accused was legally sane.

Complainant: The party who complains or sues; one who applies to the court for legal redress. Also called the plaintiff. The other party is the "respondent" or "defendant."

Complaint: 1. The legal document, along with a summons, that usually begins a civil lawsuit. It states the facts and identifies the action the court is asked to take. 2. Formal written charge that a person has committed a criminal offense.

Concurrent Sentences: Sentences for more than one crime that are to be served at the same time, rather than one after the other. See also "cumulative sentences."

Consecutive Sentences: Successive sentences, one beginning at the expiration of another, imposed against a person convicted of two or more violations.

Contempt of Court: Willful disobedience of a judge's command or an official court order. May be punished by a jail sentence or a fine.

Continuance: Postponement of a legal proceeding to a later date.

Conviction: A judgment of guilt against a criminal defendant.

Corroborating Evidence: Supplementary evidence that tends to strengthen or confirm the initial evidence.

Counsel: Legal advisor. A term used to refer to lawyers in a case.

Court: 1. Government entity authorized to resolve legal disputes. The court is part of the third branch of Wisconsin government, the Judicial Branch. 2. Judges sometimes use "court" to refer to themselves in the third person, as in "the court has read the briefs."

Court Commissioner: A judicial officer who may conduct court proceedings similar to trials. Normally limited to specific issues or topics.

Court Costs: The expenses of prosecuting or defending a lawsuit, other than attorneys' fees. An amount of money may be awarded to the successful party (and may be recoverable from the losing party) as reimbursement for court costs.

Court Reporter: A person who makes a word-for-word record of what is said in court and produces a transcript of the proceedings upon request.

CR: Criminal

Criminal Case: The action or suit by a government to penalize a person for a violation of the criminal laws, both misdemeanors and felonies.

Cross-Examination: The questioning of a witness produced by the other side.

CT: Criminal Traffic

Cumulative Sentences: Sentences for two or more crimes to run consecutively, rather than concurrently.

Custody: Detaining of a person by lawful process or authority to assure his or her appearance at any hearing. The jailing or imprisonment of a person convicted of a crime. See also "legal custody" for custody of children.

CV: A designation of a Civil court case.


D

DA: District Attorney

DC: 1. Disorderly Conduct 2. Dane County

De Novo: Anew, afresh. A "trial de novo" is the re-hearing of an issue (basically an appeal of a commissioner's decision to a Circuit Court judge).

Decision: The judgment reached or given by a court of law.

Default: A failure to respond to a lawsuit within the specified time.

Default Judgment: A judgment entered for a plaintiff against defendant(s) over whom the court has jurisdiction, who have failed to appear or do not contest the plaintiff(s) claim(s).

Defendant: In a civil case, the person being sued. In a criminal case, the person accused of the crime. Sometimes called "respondent."

Defense: A reason why a claim in a complaint should not be granted.

Deferred Prosecution: A program authorized by law, whereby an individual charged with a crime enters a guilty plea, adjudication is withheld and the individual is referred. Successful completion of the program results in the dismissal of criminal charges.

Direct Evidence: Proof of facts by witnesses who saw acts done or heard words spoken.

Direct Examination: The first questioning of witnesses by the party on whose behalf they are called.

Discovery: The pretrial process by which one party acquires potential evidence from the opposing party by way of written interrogatories, depositions, and demands to produce documents.

Discretion: The power of a judge to make decisions on various matters based on his or her opinion within general legal guidelines. A judge properly exercises discretion when he or she considers the facts of record under the proper legal standard and reaches a rational conclusion.

Dismissal: The termination of a lawsuit. A "dismissal without prejudice" allows a lawsuit to be brought before the court again at a later time. In contrast, a "dismissal with prejudice" prevents the lawsuit from being brought before a court in the future.

Dismissed and Read-In: Used only when the defendant enters a plea of guilty in a criminal case to some of the charges and the court dismisses the remainder. The parties acknowledge the court may take into consideration those charges dismissed when sentencing; i.e., 17 counts of forgery, plead guilty to 10 counts, remaining 7 counts dismissed and read-in.

Diversion: The process of removing some minor criminal, traffic, or juvenile cases from the full judicial process on the condition that the accused undergo some sort of rehabilitation or make restitution for damages.

DMV: Department of Motor Vehicles

DOB: Date of Birth

DOC: Department of Corrections

Docket: A list of cases to be heard by a court or a log containing brief entries of court proceedings.

DOJ: Department of Justice

Domestic Abuse: According to WI Statute § 813.12(1), intentional infliction of physical pain, physical injury, or illness, or intentional impairment of physical condition, or sexual assault, or a threat to engage in such conduct, or criminal damage to property of the victim by an adult family member, person residing or formerly residing with the victim, person with whom the victim has a child in common, person who has or had a dating relationship with the victim, or a person who provides in-home or community care for the victim.

DOT: Department of Transportation

Double Jeopardy: Putting a person on trial more than once for the same crime. It is forbidden by the Fifth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.

Due Process of Law: The right of all persons to receive the guarantees and safeguards of the law and the judicial process. It includes such constitutional requirements as adequate notice, assistance of counsel, and the rights to remain silent, to a speedy and public trial, to an impartial jury, and to confront and secure witnesses.


E

Elements of a Crime: Specific factors that define a crime, which the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt in order to obtain a conviction.

EMP: Electronic Monitoring Program

Entrapment: A defense to criminal charges alleging that agents of the government induced a person to commit a crime he or she otherwise would not have committed.

Equal Protection of the Law: The guarantee in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that all persons be treated equally by the law. Court decisions have established that this guarantee requires that courts be open to all persons on the same conditions, with like rules of evidence and modes of procedure; that persons be subject to no restrictions in the acquisition of property, the enjoyment of personal liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which do not generally affect others; that persons are liable to no other or greater burdens than such as are laid upon others and that no different or greater punishment is enforced against them for a violation of the laws.

Evidence: Information presented in testimony or in documents that is used to persuade the fact finder (judge or jury) to decide the outcome of a case.

Exceptions: 1. Declarations by either side in a civil or criminal case reserving the right to appeal a judge's ruling upon a motion. 2. In regulatory cases, objections by either side to points made by the other side or to rulings by the agency or one of its hearing officers.

Exclusionary Rule: The rule preventing illegally obtained evidence to be used in any trial.

Execute: 1. To complete the legal requirements (such as signing before witnesses) that make a will valid. 2. To execute a judgment or decree means to put the final judgment of the court into effect.

Exemption: An exception.

Exhibit: A document or other item introduced as evidence during a trial or hearing.

Exonerate: Remove a charge, responsibility, or duty.

Ex Parte (eks pahr'-tee): Literally "from the part." On behalf of only one party, without notice to any other party. For example, a request for a search warrant is an ex parte proceeding since the person subject to the search is not notified of the proceeding and is not present at the hearing.

Ex Parte Proceeding: The legal procedure in which only one side is represented. It differs from "adversary system" or "adversary proceeding."

Expert Witnesses: Experts in a field who will testify in a trial or hearing. For example, in a divorce action, the expert witnesses may include property appraisers, accountants, psychologists, or psychiatrists, and the family court counselor who conducted an evaluation of the case.

Ex Post Facto: After the fact. The constitution prohibits the enactment of ex post facto laws. These are laws that permit conviction and punishment for a lawful act performed before the law was changed and the act made illegal.

Extenuating Circumstances: Circumstances that render a crime less aggravated, heinous, or reprehensible than it would otherwise be.

Expungement: Official and formal erasure of a record or partial contents of a record.

Extradition: The process by which one state or country surrenders to another state, a person accused or convicted of a crime in the state requesting extradition.


F

Fee: A charge fixed by law for the service of public officers.

Felony: A crime of a graver nature than a misdemeanor, usually punishable by imprisonment in a penitentiary for more than a year and/or substantial fines.

File: To place a paper in the official custody of the clerk of court/court administrator to enter into the files or records of a case.

Final Judgment: The written determination of a lawsuit by the judge who presided over the lawsuit that makes rulings on all issues and completes the case. A final judgment of a circuit court case may be appealed to the court of appeals by the losing party.

Finding or Finding of Fact: The determination of a factual question contributing to a decision in a case by the finder of fact after a trial. If a judge has served as sole finder of fact, the judge is required to state on the record all facts that are relevant to his or her decision.

First Appearance: See "initial appearance."

FO: Designation of Forfeiture cases.

Foreperson: The juror selected by the other jurors to organize and lead their discussion and sign the verdict(s).

Fraud: Intentional deception to deprive another person of property or to injure that person in some other way.


G

Good Time: A reduction in sentenced time in prison as a reward for good behavior. It usually is up to one-third off the maximum sentence.

Grand Jury: A body of persons that meets in secret, sworn to inquire into criminal activity and, if appropriate, bring charges ("indictments") against the individuals and entities.


H

Habeas Corpus (hay'-bee-us kor'pus): Literally, "that you have the body." A writ commanding that a person be brought before a judge. Most commonly, a writ of habeas corpus is a legal document that forces law enforcement authorities to produce a prisoner they are holding and to legally justify his or her confinement.

Harassment: According to WI Statute § 813.125(1), striking, shoving, kicking, or otherwise subjecting a person to physical contact or attempting or threatening to engage in such contact, or engaging in a course of conduct or repeatedly committing acts which harass or intimidate a person and which serve no legitimate purpose.

Harmless Error: An error committed during a trial that was corrected or was not serious enough to affect the outcome of a trial and, therefore, was not sufficiently harmful (prejudicial) to be reversed on appeal.

Hearsay: Out of court statements made by third parties. Hearsay is usually not admissible as evidence in court, but there are exceptions.

Hostile Witness: A witness whose testimony is not favorable to the party who calls him or her as a witness. A hostile witness may be asked leading questions and may be cross-examined by the party who calls him or her to the stand.

HTO: Habitual Traffic Offender

Huber Program - Work Release: A program authorized by law granting an inmate the privilege to work, seek employment, attend to the needs of family members, and/or attend school or treatment programs while serving a jail sentence.

Hung Jury: A jury whose members cannot agree upon a verdict.


I

Immunity: Granted by the court assuring someone will not face prosecution in return for providing testimony.

Impeachment of a Witness: An attack on the credibility (believability) of a witness through evidence introduced for that purpose.

In Camera: Literally, "in a chamber." In chambers; in private. As opposed to "in open court."

Inadmissible Evidence: Evidence that, under the established rules of evidence, cannot be admitted or received into the record at a hearing or trial.

Incarcerate: To confine in jail or prison.

Indeterminate Sentence: A sentence of imprisonment to a specified minimum and maximum period of time, specifically authorized by statute, subject to termination by a parole board or other authorized agency after the prisoner has served the minimum term.

Indictment: A written accusation by a grand jury charging a person with a crime(s).

Indigent: An individual who meets the indigency standard of the Poverty Guidelines for Earnings. If the court finds a person to be indigent, the court must appoint a public defender or other attorney to represent the person in a criminal case at no expense to the person.

Information: Accusatory document, filed by the prosecutor, detailing the charges against the defendant. An alternative to an "indictment," it serves to bring a defendant to trial.

Initial Appearance (IA): The first appearance of an arrested person before a judge where the accused will receive a copy of the criminal complaint, enter a plea if charged with a misdemeanor, and bail is set. Generally the person comes before a judge within hours of the arrest.

Injunction: Writ or order by a court prohibiting a specific action from being carried out by the respondent(s). A preliminary injunction is granted provisionally until a full hearing can be held to determine if it should be made permanent. A restraining order or injunction is a permanent court order for the respondent to avoid contact with the petitioner and/or petitioner's residence, or to cease harassing behavior

Interlocutory: Provisional; not final. An interlocutory order or an interlocutory appeal concerns only a part of the issues raised in a lawsuit.


J

John Doe: 1. A fictitious name used in law to designate a person unknown. 2. In Wisconsin, an investigative proceeding conducted before a judge regarding alleged criminal conduct.

Joinder of Defendants: Two or more defendants may be charged in the same indictment or information if they are alleged to have participated in the same act or transaction or in the same series of acts or transactions constituting an offense or offenses. Such defendants may be charged in one or more counts together or separately, and all of the defendants need not be charged in each count.

Joint and Several Liability: A legal doctrine that makes each of the parties who are responsible for an injury liable for all the damages awarded in a lawsuit if the other parties responsible cannot pay.

Judge: An elected or appointed public official with authority to hear and decide cases in a court of law. A "Judge Pro Tem" is a temporary judge.

Judgment: The final disposition of a lawsuit. "Default judgment" is a judgment rendered because of the defendant's failure to answer or appear. "Summary judgment" is a judgment given on the basis of pleadings, affidavits, and exhibits presented for the record without any need for a trial. It is used when there is no dispute as to the facts of the case and one party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. "Consent judgment" occurs when the provisions and terms of the judgment are agreed upon by the parties and submitted to the court for its sanction and approval.

Judicial Review: The authority of a court to review the official actions of other branches of government and the authority to declare unconstitutional the actions of other branches.

Jurisdiction: 1. The legal authority of a court to hear and decide a case. Concurrent jurisdiction exists when two courts have simultaneous responsibility for the same case. 2. The geographic area over which the court has authority to decide cases.

Jurisprudence: The study of law and the structure of the legal system.

Jury: Persons selected according to law and sworn to inquire into and declare a verdict on matters of fact. A "petit jury" is an ordinary or trial jury composed of six or twelve persons, which hears either civil or criminal cases. See also "Grand Jury"

Jury Clerk: The court officer responsible for choosing the panel of persons to serve as potential jurors.

Juvenile Delinquency: As defined in WI Statute § 938.02(3m) a juvenile who is 10 years of age or older who has violated any state or federal criminal law, except as provided in § 938.17, § 938.18 and § 938.183, or who has committed a contempt of court, as defined in § 785.01(1), as specified in § 938.355(6g).

JV: Juvenile


L

Law: The combination of rules and principles of conduct promulgated by legislative authority, derived from court decisions, and established by local custom.

Law Clerks: Persons trained in the law who assist judges in researching legal opinions. Also called "Staff Attorneys."

Leading Question: A question that suggests the answer desired of the witness. A party generally may not ask one's own witness leading questions. Leading questions may be asked only of hostile witnesses and on cross-examination.

Leniency: Recommendation for a sentence less than the maximum allowed.

Liable: Legally responsible.

Limine (lim'-ah-nee): Literally, "at the outset." A motion requesting that the court not allow introduction of certain evidence that might prejudice the jury.


M

Magistrate: 1. Judicial officer exercising some of the functions of a judge. 2. Refers in a general way to a judge.

Mandate: A judicial order directing the proper officer to enforce a judgment, sentence or decree.

Manslaughter: The unlawful killing of another without intent to kill, either voluntary (upon a sudden impulse) or involuntary (during the commission of an unlawful act not ordinarily expected to result in great bodily harm). See also "murder."

Mens Rea (menz ree'-ah): Literally, "guilty mind." The "guilty mind" necessary to establish criminal responsibility.

Miranda Warning: Requirement that police tell a suspect in their custody of his or her constitutional rights before they question him or her. So named as a result of the Miranda v. Arizona ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Misdemeanor: A criminal offense considered less serious than a felony. Misdemeanors generally are punishable by a fine or a limited jail term of a year or less, but not by imprisonment in a state prison.

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

Mitigating Circumstances: Those which do not constitute a justification or excuse for an offense, but which may be considered as reasons for reducing the degree of blame.

Moot: A moot case or a moot point is one not subject to a judicial determination because it involves an abstract question or a pretended controversy that has not yet actually arisen or has already passed. Mootness usually refers to a court's refusal to consider a case because the issue involved has been resolved prior to the court's decision, leaving nothing that would be affected by the court's decision.

Motion: Oral or written request made by a party to an action before, during, or after a trial, upon which a court issues a ruling or order.

Municipal Courts: In Wisconsin, courts whose territorial authority is confined to the city or community, and whose jurisdiction is limited to municipal ordinance violations.

Murder: The unlawful killing of a human being with deliberate intent to kill. See also "manslaughter"


N

Neglect: According to Wisconsin Statute § 48.981(1)(d), failure to provide food, clothing, shelter, a safe living environment, medical or dental care which seriously endangers the child's physical health. Some examples would be: broken glass laying on the floor, electrical wires a child can touch, dog and cat waste laying around the house, drugs or alcohol left where a child can reach them, no food, no home to stay in, or a failure to protect the child from neglect.

Negligence: Failure to exercise the degree of care that a reasonable person would exercise under the same or similar circumstances.

NGI: Not Guilty by Reason of Mental Disease or Defect (Insanity)

No Content / Nolo Contendere (noh'-lo kahn-ten'dah-ree): Literally, "I do not wish to contend." A plea of no contest. In many jurisdictions, it is an expression that the matter will not be contested, but without an admission of guilt.

No Process / Nolle Prosequi (nahl'-ee prahs'-ah-kwi): Literally, "not to wish to proceed." A decision by a prosecutor not to go forward with charging a crime. It translates "I do not choose to prosecute."

Not Guilty by Reason of Mental Disease or Defect: According to WI Statute § 971.15(1), the court or jury finds a person was not responsible for criminal conduct as a result of mental disease or defect, he/she lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality (wrongfulness) of his/her conduct, or to conform his/her conduct to the requirements of law.

Notary Public: A person authorized by law and specially designated to administer oaths, certify and authenticate specific documents, and perform other prescribed acts.

Notice: 1. Formal notification to the party that has been sued in a civil case of the fact that the lawsuit has been filed. 2. Any form of notification of a legal proceeding or hearing.

Nunc Pro Tunc (nuhnk proh tuhnk): Literally, "now for then." A legal phrase applied to acts that are allowed after the time when they should be done, with a retroactive effect.


O

OAR: Operating After Revocation

OAS: Operating After Suspension

Oath: A written or oral pledge by a person to keep a promise to speak the truth.

Objection: The process by which one party takes exception to a statement or procedure. An objection is either sustained (allowed) or overruled by the judge.

Of Counsel: A phrase commonly applied to an attorney employed to assist in the preparation or management of the case, or its presentation on appeal, but who is not the principal attorney of record.

On a Person's Own Recognizance: Release of a person from custody without the payment of any bail or posting of bond, upon the promise to return to court.

Opening Statement: The initial statement made by attorneys for each side, outlining the facts each intends to establish during the trial.

Opinion: A judge's written explanation of a decision of the court or of a majority of judges. A "dissenting opinion" disagrees with the majority opinion because of the reasoning and/or the principles of law on which the decision is based. A "concurring opinion" agrees with the decision of the court, but offers further comment.

Oral Argument: An opportunity for lawyers to summarize their position before the court and also to answer the judges' questions.

Order: A written or oral command from a court directing or forbidding an action.

Order to Show Cause (OSC): An order of the court directing a party to appear on a certain date to show cause why the judge should not issue a specific order or make a certain finding.

Overrule: 1. A judge's decision not to allow an objection. 2. A decision by a higher court finding that a lower court decision was in error.

OWI: Operating While Intoxicated


P

PAC: Prohibited Alcohol Concentration

Pardon: A form of executive clemency preventing criminal prosecution or removing or extinguishing a criminal conviction.

PD: 1. Police Department 2. Public Defender

Perjury: The criminal offense of making a false statement under oath.

Personal Recognizance: In criminal proceedings, the pretrial release of a defendant without cash bail upon his or her promise to return to court. See also "On a Person's Own Recognizance."

Petitioner: 1. The person filing an action in a court of original jurisdiction. 2. The person who appeals the judgment of a lower court. The opposing party is called the "respondent."

Plaintiff: The person who files the complaint in a civil lawsuit. Also called the "complainant." In certain cases, also called the "petitioner."

Plea: In a criminal proceeding, it is the defendant's declaration in open court that he or she is guilty or not guilty. The defendant's answer to the charges made in the complaint or information.

Plea Bargaining or Plea Negotiating: The process through which an accused person and a prosecutor negotiate a mutually satisfactory disposition of a case. Usually it is a legal transaction in which a defendant pleads guilty in exchange for some form of leniency. It often involves a guilty plea to lesser charges or a guilty plea to some of the charges if other charges are dropped. Such bargains are not binding on the court.

Pleadings: The documents in which the parties in a suit alternately present written statements of their contentions, each responsive to that which precedes and each serving to narrow the field of controversy, until the issues are established, affirmed on one side and denied on the other, upon which they then go to trial.

PO: Probation (or Parole) Officer

Polling the Jury: The act, after a jury verdict has been announced, of asking jurors individually whether they agree with the verdict.

Power of Attorney: Formal written authorization for a person to act in the interests of another person.

Precedent: A previously decided case that provides authority for the decision of future cases.

Preliminary Hearing: A hearing in a felony criminal case in which the state must prove probable cause that a felony has been committed and the defendant committed the felony.

Preponderance of the Evidence: Evidence with greater weight, or evidence that is more credible and convincing to the mind. The standard of proof required in Department of Corrections Revocation Hearings, and usually in civil actions.

Pre-Sentence Report: A report to the sentencing judge containing background information about the crime, its impact, and the defendant to assist the judge in making his or her sentencing decision.

Pre-Trial Conference: A meeting between the judge and the lawyers involved in a lawsuit to narrow the issues in the suit, agree on what will be presented at the trial, and make a final effort to settle the case without a trial. See also "status conference/pretrial"

Prima Facie (pri'-mah fay'-shah): Literally, "at first sight." A case that is sufficient and has the minimum amount of evidence necessary to allow it to continue in the judicial process.

Probable Cause: A reasonable belief that a crime has been or is being committed. The basis for all lawful searches, seizures, and arrests.

Probation: An alternative to incarceration allowing a person found guilty of an offense to stay in the community, usually under conditions and under the supervision of a probation officer. A violation of probation can lead to its revocation and to incarceration.

Procedural Law: The rules for conducting a lawsuit. There are rules of civil procedure, criminal procedure, evidence, bankruptcy, and appellate procedure. Self-represented litigants should be familiar with procedural and court rules for a specific jurisdiction, such as Dane County Circuit Court, before proceeding with an action.

Pro Se (proh say): Literally, "on one's own behalf." In courts, it refers to persons who present their own cases without lawyers.

Prosecutor: A trial lawyer representing the government in a criminal case and the interests of the state in civil matters. In criminal cases, the prosecutor has the responsibility of deciding who, when, and what to prosecute.

Proximate cause: The act that caused an event to occur. A person generally is liable only if an injury was proximately caused by his or her action, or by his or her failure to act when he or she had a duty to act.

PSI: Presentence Investigation

Public Defender: See "SPD"


Q

Quash: To overthrow; vacate; to annul or void (e. g., to quash a summons or indictment).


R

Reasonable Doubt: An accused person is entitled to an acquittal if, in the minds of the jury, his or her guilt has not been proved beyond "a reasonable doubt"-the doubt that would give a person pause in making a decision in the most important affairs of life.

Reasonable Person: A phrase used to denote a hypothetical person who exercises qualities of attention, knowledge, intelligence, and judgment that society requires of its members for the protection of their own interest and the interests of others. Thus, the test of negligence is based on either a failure to do something that a reasonable person, guided by considerations that ordinarily regulate conduct, would do, or on the doing of something that a reasonable and prudent (wise) person would not do.

Rebut: Evidence disproving other evidence previously given or re-establishing the believability of challenged evidence.

Record: All the exhibits and evidence, plus transcripts of oral proceedings, in a court case.

Recuse: The process by which a judge is disqualified from hearing a case on his or her own motion or upon the objection of either party.

Re-Direct Examination: Opportunity to present rebuttal evidence after one's evidence has been subjected to cross-examination.

Rehearing: Another hearing of a civil or criminal case by the same court in which the matter was originally heard.

Remand: 1. To take into custody. 2. To send a dispute back to the court where it was originally heard; usually an appellate court remands a case for proceedings in the trial court consistent with the appellate court's ruling.

Reply: The response by a party to charges raised in a pleading by the other party.

Respondent: 1. The person against whom an appeal is taken. 2. The name for the non-petitioning party in a family court action. Sometimes called the "defendant"

Rest: A party is said to rest or rest its case when it has presented all the evidence it intends to offer.

Restitution: Act of giving the equivalent for any loss, damage, or injury.

Restraining Order: See "injunction" or "temporary restraining order"

Retainer: Act of the client in employing the attorney or counsel, and also denotes the fee that the client pays when he or she retains the attorney to act for them.

Return: 1. A report to a judge by police on the implementation of an arrest or search warrant. 2. A report to a judge in reply to a subpoena, civil or criminal.

Reverse: An action of a higher court setting aside or revoking a lower court decision.

Reversible Error: A procedural error during a trial or hearing sufficiently harmful to justify reversing the judgment of a lower court.

Revoke: To cancel or nullify a term of supervision by the Department of Corrections ( or legal document).

Robbery: Felonious taking of another's property from his or her person or immediate presence and against his or her will by means of force or fear.

Rules of Evidence: Standards governing whether evidence in a civil or criminal case is admissible.


S

Search Warrant: A written order issued by a judge that directs a law enforcement officer to search a specific area for evidence described in detail in the search warrant.

Self-Defense: Claim that an act otherwise criminal was legally justifiable because it was necessary to protect a person or property from the threat or action of another. See WI Statute § 939.48 for more information.

Self-Incrimination, Privilege Against: The constitutional right of people to refuse to give testimony against themselves that could subject them to criminal prosecution. The right is guaranteed in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Asserting the right is often referred to as "pleading or taking the Fifth."

Sentence: The punishment ordered by a court for a defendant convicted of a crime. A concurrent sentence means that two or more sentences would run at the same time. A consecutive sentence means that two or more sentences would run one after another.

Sentence Report: A document containing background material on a convicted person. It is prepared to aid the judge in the imposition of a sentence. Sometimes called a "presentence report."

Sequester: To separate. Sometimes juries are separated from outside influences during the trial and/or their deliberations. For example, this may occur during a highly publicized trial.

Sequestration of Witnesses: Keeping all witnesses (except plaintiff and defendant) out of the courtroom except for their time on the stand and cautioning them not to discuss their testimony with other witnesses. This prevents a witness from being influenced by the testimony of a prior witness. Also called "separation of witnesses."

Service: The delivery of a legal document, such as a complaint, summons, or subpoena, notifying a person of a lawsuit or other legal action taken against him or her.

Sidebar: A conference between the judge and lawyers, usually in the courtroom, out of earshot of the jury and spectators.

SPD: State Public Defender. Government lawyer who provides no, or low, cost legal defense services to qualified poor persons accused of a crime.

Standing: The legal right to bring a lawsuit. Only a person with something at stake has standing to bring a lawsuit.

Stare Decisis: Literally, "to stand by things decided." The doctrine that courts will follow principles of law laid down in previous cases. Similar to "precedent."

Status Conference/Pretrial: A meeting of parties or attorneys before a judge or court commissioner to inform the court as to how the case is proceeding, what discovery has been conducted, any settlement negotiations, probable length of trial, and other matters relevant to moving the case forward.

Statute: The written law; legislatively enacted law. The Wisconsin Statutes are available online at http://www.legis.state.wi.us/rsb/stats.html or in print at any public or law library.

Statute of Limitations: The time within which a prosecutor must bring charges (in criminal cases). There are different statutes of limitations at both the federal and state levels for different kinds of lawsuits or crimes.

Statutory Construction: Process by which a court seeks to interpret the meaning of language of a statute.

Stay: A court order halting a judicial proceeding or previous ruling.

Stipulation: An agreement by attorneys or parties on both sides of a civil or criminal case about some aspect of the case; e.g., to extend the time to answer, to adjourn the trial date, or to admit certain facts at the trial.

Strike: Highlighting in the record of a case, evidence that has been improperly offered and will not be relied upon.

Sua Sponte: Literally, "of one's own accord; voluntarily." Voluntary, without prompting or suggestion.

Subpoena: Literally, "under penalty." A court order compelling a witness to appear and testify.

Subpoena Duces Tecum (sah-pee'-nah doo'-seez tay'-kahm): A court order commanding a witness to bring certain documents or records to court.

Substitution of Judge: Either party or the court may request a substitution of a judge assigned to a case at a preliminary hearing or prior to any motions being made before the trial court and before arraignment. See Wis. Statute § 971.20 for more information.

Summary Judgment: A decision made on the basis of statements and evidence presented for the record without a trial. It is used when there is no dispute as to the facts of the case, and one party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Summoned: To receive an official letter or notice that citizens are required to make themselves available for jury service for a specific period of time.

Summons: A notice to a defendant that he or she has been sued or charged with a crime and is required to appear in court.

Suppress: To forbid the use of evidence at a trial because it is improper or was improperly obtained. See also "exclusionary rule."

Sustain: A court ruling upholding an objection or a motion.


T

Temporary Order: An order by a judge or commissioner for a temporary period of time. Most common in divorce or paternity actions.

Temporary Restraining Order (TRO): A judge's order forbidding certain actions until a full hearing can be held. Usually of short duration. Most common in domestic abuse and harassment cases. See also "Injunction"

Testimony: The evidence given by a witness under oath. It does not include evidence from documents and other physical evidence.

Third Party: A person, business, or government agency not initially actively involved in a legal proceeding, agreement, or transaction, but may be at a later time.

TIME: Transaction Information for Management of Enforcement. Wisconsin's electronic law enforcement communications system.

TR: Traffic

Transcript: A written, word-for-word record of what was said, either in a proceeding such as a trial or during some other conversation, as in a transcript of a hearing or oral deposition.

Trial Court: See "Circuit Court"

TRO: Temporary Restraining Order


U

UWPD: University of Wisconsin Police Department


V

Vacate: To set aside. To vacate a judgment is to set aside that judgment.

Venire (veh-neer'): 1. A writ summoning persons to court to act as jurors. 2. Also refers to the people summoned for jury duty.

Venue: The proper geographical area (county, city, or district) in which a court with jurisdiction over the subject matter may hear a case.

Verdict: A conclusion, as to fact or law, which forms the basis for the court's judgment. A general verdict is a jury's finding for or against a plaintiff after determining the facts and weighing them according to the judge's instructions regarding the law.

VINE: Victim Information and Notification Everyday. A telephone-based system designed to provide crime victims with information on jail custody status and scheduled court events.

Voir Dire (vwahr deer): Literally, "to speak the truth." Process of questioning potential jurors so that each side may decide whether to accept or oppose individuals for jury service.


W

Waiver: Intentionally giving up a right.

Waiver of Immunity: A means authorized by statue by which a witness, before testifying or producing evidence, may relinquish the right to refuse to testify against himself or herself, thereby making it possible for his or her testimony to be used against him or her in future proceedings.

Warrant: Most commonly, a court order authorizing law enforcement officers to make an arrest or conduct a search. An affidavit seeking a warrant must establish probable cause by detailing the facts upon which the request is based.

With Prejudice: Applied to orders of judgment dismissing a case, meaning that the plaintiff is forever barred from bringing a lawsuit on the same claim or cause.

Without Prejudice: A claim or cause dismissed without prejudice may be the subject of a new lawsuit.

Witness: 1. A person who testifies to what he or she has seen, heard, or otherwise experienced. 2. A person who observes the signing of a will and is competent to testify that it is the will maker's intended last will and testament.

Writ: A judicial order directing a person to do something.

Writ of Certiorari: An order issued by a higher court directing the lower tribunal to transmit records for a case for which it will hear on appeal.

Adapted from Dane County Clerk of Courts.