Glossary of Legal Terms

This glossary is provided to help you understand the more commonly used legal terms in the federal criminal justice system. If you need to learn the meaning of a legal term not defined below, contact the federal prosecutor or the victim/witness coordinator.

Abstract of judgment - A certification from the U.S. District Court clerk that a judgment of restitution was entered against the defendant owing to the victim. If the defendant inherits, owns, or sells real property or holdings, these assets can then be attached at the state and local levels as well.

Acquittal - A legal finding that the criminal defendant has not been proven guilty of the charge beyond a reasonable doubt.

Action - The case, cause, or controversy before the court.

Affidavit - A written statement of facts made under oath before a notary or court officer.

Affirmed - A legal finding by a higher court that the ruling or order of a lower court is valid and left to stand.

Appeal - A formal, written request to a higher court for relief from findings, decisions, or actions of the trial court.

Arraignment - The first court hearing for a person accused of a crime. In the arraignment, the accused is advised of all pending charges, is asked to plead guilty or not guilty, and is advised of his or her rights in the justice process.

Arrest - Taking physical custody of a person by lawful authority.

Asset - Anything of value, including any interest (equity) in real or personal property. Assets can be used to satisfy an order for restitution, fines, assessments, or other costs imposed by a court.

Asset forfeiture (or attachment) - A procedure by which a person's property is seized to pay judgments levied by the court.

Assistant U.S. Attorney - A federal prosecutor who represents the U.S. government and its citizens when a federal statute has been violated.

Bail - An assurance, usually backed by money, that a defendant will come to court as required if released from jail before trial.

Bankrupt - Being declared unable to pay one's debts.

Bond - Another word used for bail in the criminal justice system.

Case - Any proceeding, action, cause, or lawsuit initiated through the court system by filing a complaint, petition, information, or indictment.

Charge - A formal, written accusation that a person violated a law.

Civil forfeiture - The loss of ownership of property used to conduct illegal activity.

Clerk of the court - An officer of the court who is in charge of the court's administrative work.

Complaint - A formal accusation to the court that a person violated a law.

Continuance - A postponement, for good cause, of a scheduled court event.

Conviction - A judgment of guilt against a criminal defendant.

Damages - The monetary compensation recovered in the courts by a person who has suffered loss to his or her person, property, or rights through the unlawful act or negligence of another.

Defendant - A person formally accused of violating a law.

Defense attorney - A lawyer who legally represents the interests of a defendant.

Deposition - Oral statement made by a person before an officer authorized by the court to administer oaths.

Dismissal - The dropping of a case by the judge without further consideration or hearing.

Docket - A list of cases on the court's calendar.

Evidence - Any kind of information from witnesses, records, or documents that purports to show the accused did or did not commit the crime.

Extradition - The formal process of delivering an accused or convicted person from authorities in one state to authorities in another state.

Financial Litigation Unit - A division of the civil section in the U.S. Attorney's Office responsible for the collection of fines and restitution.

Fraud - Intentional deception resulting in injury to another.

Grand jury - A panel of citizens who hear evidence collected by the federal prosecutor or his or her agent and then decide whether the evidence is sufficient to believe that a defendant violated a certain law and that the defendant should be formally charged.

Guilty - The finding given by the court or jury in a criminal trial when the evidence presented shows "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the defendant committed the crime.

Hearing - A formal proceeding with one or more legal issues to be agreed upon or determined.

Indictment - A formal, written accusation by the grand jury that there is enough evidence to believe the defendant has committed a crime. An indictment is sometimes referred to as a true bill.

Information - The formal written accusation charging a particular crime, brought by the federal prosecutor rather than by the grand jury.

Jurisdiction - The power or authority of a court to hear and decide a case.

Jury - A panel of citizens who listen to evidence presented at a trial and decide whether it proves the defendant violated a law or is financially liable.

Lien - A claim or charge put on property for payment of a debt or performance of an obligation or duty.

Motion - A written application to the court requesting an order or a ruling in favor of the applicant.

No true bill (also called a no bill) - A legal procedure to dismiss charges against a defendant when the grand jury does not find enough evidence to charge the defendant with violating a law.

Not guilty - The finding given by the court or jury in a criminal trial when the evidence presented does not show "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the defendant committed the crime.

Order - A written direction of the court.

Plea - The defendant's answer (guilty or not guilty) to the charge made against him or her.

Plea agreement - An arrangement between the federal prosecutor, the defense attorney, and the defendant in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty in exchange for special considerations.

Pre-sentence investigation report - A formal, written report prepared by the U.S. Probation Department for the court, before the sentencing hearing, that provides the judge with information about the defendant's background, the crime he or she has been convicted of, and the emotional, financial, or physical impact the crime had on the victim.

Pretrial conference - An informal meeting between the federal prosecutor and the defense attorney to clarify issues and, where applicable, to attempt to work out a settlement before any further court filings and proceedings.

Pretrial interview - An informal discussion, before the trial, between the federal prosecutor or the defense attorney and witnesses to discuss their knowledge of the crime.

Probable cause - A reasonable ground for belief that the offender violated a specific law.

Probation - A form of punishment that allows the defendant to live in a community under the supervision of the court and a probation officer after he or she is found guilty or pleads guilty.

Probation Officer - An officer of the court who monitors the defendant's behavior to ensure that the defendant obeys all conditions of probation.

Remand - A legal ruling by a higher court to send a case back to the lower court for further action.

Restitution - The court-ordered payment of money by the defendant to the victim for damages caused by the criminal action.

Sentence - The length and conditions of punishment given by the court if the defendant is found guilty or pleads guilty.

Statute of limitations - The specified period during which a civil action or criminal charge can be made.

Subpoena - A written command for a person to appear at a certain place and time to give evidence in court about a crime or other legal matter. Also called a summons.

Summons - Another word for subpoena used by the criminal justice system.

Testify - To answer questions under oath in a legal proceeding.

Testimony - Evidence given by a witness under oath.

Trial - A court proceeding in which testimony is presented to a judge or jury to determine whether the defendant is guilty of committing a crime.

True bill - Another word for indictment.

Venue - The place where the trial will be held (normally in the district in which the offense was committed).

Victim - A person who has physically, financially, or emotionally suffered from the commission of a crime by another.

Victim Impact Statement - A written or spoken statement by the victim or his or her representative about the physical, emotional, and financial impact of a crime on the victim. The statement is given to the court before sentencing.

Victim/witness coordinator - A person who provides information about the justice process to victims and witnesses of crime. In the federal system, victim/witness coordinators are employed by some law enforcement agencies and all U.S. Attorneys' Offices.

White-collar crime - A nonviolent criminal act involving deceit, concealment, subterfuge, or other fraudulent activity.

Witness - A person who has knowledge of a crime and provides that information to law enforcement officials.

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