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Common Legal Terms

The average American knows little about “legalese,” and what they do know is probably the product of watching crime dramas on television. At some point, most people will find themselves in some sort of legal situation, whether it’s just a court appearance due to a minor traffic violation, a divorce, or even something more serious. I believe everyone should know at least the most commonly used legal terms, so here is a list with definitions and examples.

Affidavit: A statement written under oath. For example, when a criminal confesses to a crime they write out an affidavit and sign it, or it can be the statement written by a victim of a crime.

Appeal: Asking a higher court to review the decision or sentence of a trial court because the lower court made an error of the law. You can not appeal just because you don’t like the verdict, there has to be some legal mistake for you to file an appeal.

Appellant: Person who files the appeal

Arraignment: The first court appearance of a person accused of a crime, in which the defendant is advised of his or her rights by a judge and may respond to the criminal charges by entering a plea

Bench warrant: Court papers issued by a judge, “from the bench,” for the arrest of a person. If you fail to show up in court when you’ve been summoned, the judge may issue a bench warrant for your arrest.

Contempt of Court: A finding that someone disobeyed a court order or disrupted the court. For example, if someone begins yelling at the defendant and the judge declares that person is in contempt of court.

Conviction: To be found guilty of committing a crime.

Defendant: In civil cases, it’s the person who is given court papers, also called a respondent. In criminal cases, it’s the person who is arrested and charged with a crime.

Dismissal: A judge's decision to end the case.

Evidence: Testimony, documents or objects presented at a trial to prove a fact.

Felony: Any criminal offense for which a person may be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of more than of one year.

Hearsay: Testimony given by a witness that is second or third hand information.

Judge: A person who hears and decides cases for the courts.

Judgment: A court decision, also called a decree or an order.

Misdemeanor: Any criminal offense for which the punishment is less than one year of imprisonment.

Nolo Contendre: A Latin term that translates to "no contest". A plea in a criminal case that allows the defendant to be convicted without admitting guilt for the crime charged.

Plaintiff: The person who sues or starts a civil case, also called the petitioner or the complainant.

Plea: An accused person’s answer to a criminal charge. For example: not guilty; guilty; no contest.

Plea Bargain: The agreement a defendant makes with the prosecutor to avoid a trial, which usually involves pleading guilty to lesser charges in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Prosecutor: Also called the state's attorney, who represents the state in a criminal case against a defendant.

Subpoena: A command to appear in court to testify as a witness.

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