Legal Terms

Acquittal

When a criminal defendant is found not guilty of a crime by a judge or jury; a verdict that establishes that a prosecutor failed to prove the accused's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Adjournment

Postponing or rescheduling a case or court session until another date or time.

Adversary Proceeding

Actions contested by opposing parties.

Affidavit

A written statement of fact verified by oath or affirmation before a notary public.

Appeal

A request to a supervisory court, usually composed of a panel of judges, to overturn a legal ruling of a lower court.

Arraignment

A criminal defendant's first appearance on the formal charges before a judge. The defendant is formally charged and enters a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest. This occurs at the initial appearance in misdemeanor cases and at some point following bind over at preliminary hearings in felony cases.

Bail

Bond money paid to a court, by or on behalf of a criminal defendant, as security that when released from jail the defendant will appear at future hearings. If another person posts the bail money, then that third party vouches that the defendant will appear at future court dates. Bail can be forfeited if the defendant fails to appear or violates release conditions.

Battery

Causing bodily harm to another intentionally without consent. The penalty for battery increases with the amount of bodily harm caused.

Bench Trial

A trial held before a judge and without a jury. The judge finds the facts.

Bind Over

A finding at a preliminary examination in a felony case that sufficient evidence exists to require a trial on the charges made against the defendant.

Bond

A debt intended to insure the defendant's future appearances in court. The amount of the bond is set by a judge or court commissioner. Factors influencing the amount set include the seriousness of the charge, the defendant's criminal history, and the defendant's ties to the community. There are two general types of bonds: Signature bonds do not require the defendant or a third party to pay money to the court, unless the defendant later fails to appear. Cash bonds require the full amount of the bond to be paid in cash before the defendant can be released. If the defendant appears at all future court dates, most if not all of the monies are returned to the person posting the bond.

Burden of Proof

The duty to establish facts in an adversary proceeding.

Challenges

A method for striking a prospective juror. The Wisconsin Rules allow two types of juror challenges: for cause (unlimited number) and peremptory (limited number depending on the severity of the crime on trial). Appropriate challenges for cause exist when the juror is shown to be biased for or against a party, is related to a trial participant, etc. No reason need be announced for a peremptory challenge.

CHIPS

Children in Need of Protection and Services.

Circuit Court

Wisconsin's highest level trial court, with the broadest range of powers.

Circumstantial Evidence

Indirect evidence that implies something occurred but does not directly prove it.

Civil Case

A case between private litigants concerning personal wrongs, generally where the losing party must compensate the prevailing party with money or other property. Examples include divorces, personal injury, landlord / tenant, small claims and contract or property disputes.

Civil Offense

A non-criminal violation of a law prosecuted by the state or local government unit. A person cannot usually be sent to jail for a civil offense. The most common example is a traffic citation, like speeding. The penalty for a civil offense is payment of fines, costs, and fees. For a traffic civil offense, points may be added to the driving record.

Common Law

A body of legal principles which derives its authority from the judgments and decrees of courts recognizing, affirming, and enforcing such usages and customs; particularly the ancient unwritten law of England. Common law is to be distinguished from "statutory law," which is enacted by a legislative body such as Congress or a state legislature.

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.

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 the crime, meaning that the prosecution won and the defense lost.

Court Appointed Attorney

Legal counsel assigned by the court to represent an indigent (poor) defendant. A court-appointed attorney is not necessarily a "free" attorney; the court can order that some or all of the attorney's bill be reimbursed.

Criminal Case

A charge filed by a prosecutor against a defendant concerning violation of a criminal law. The act of violating a criminal law is an offense against the community, not a private wrong. Examples include murder, rape, battery and theft.

Criminal Complaint

A document prepared by the District Attorney’s Office which lists the criminal charges and summarizes the facts in support of those charges.

Cross Examination

The questioning of a witness by a party other than the one who called that witness to the stand.

Decline

When the District Attorney's Office decides that the evidence does not support the filing of criminal charges, the case referred by the arresting agency is declined.

Defendant

A person who has been formally charged with committing a crime.

Deferred Prosecution Unit

A program run by the District Attorney's Office which may be offered to first-time criminal offenders who voluntarily enter a guilty plea.

Delinquent

A crime committed by a minor under the age of 17. Juvenile delinquency offenses are prosecuted in the juvenile court.

Direct Evidence

Evidence that stands on its own to prove an alleged fact.

Direct Examination

Questioning of a witness by the party who first called the witness to the stand.

District Attorney

An elected official who represents the State of Wisconsin in criminal cases within an identified county. Assistant District Attorneys act under the authority of the District Attorney.

Double Jeopardy

Being tried twice for the same offense. Jeopardy begins in a jury trial when the selected jury is sworn, and attaches in a bench trial when the first witness is sworn.

Drunk Driving

See "OWI".

Ex-Parte

Refers to situations in which only one party (and not the adversary) appears before a judge. Such meetings are often forbidden.

Ex-Parte Order

An order entered without giving the party affected by the order an opportunity to be heard in court before the order is issued. An emergency order used when one party could be irreparably harmed by waiting for a hearing date. The orders are generally short-term, and hearings are such scheduled soon after the order is entered to give the other party a chance to be heard.

Felony

A crime punishable by confinement in the state prison system for a year or more.

Grand Jury

A group of citizens convened in a criminal case to consider the prosecutor's evidence and determine whether probable cause exists to prosecute a suspect for a felony. Grand juries are used more in federal courts rather than state courts.

Guardian Ad Litem

A person (usually an attorney) appointed by the court to protect the legal interests of a child, incompetent adult, or missing person involved in a court case. Guardian ad Litems are often appointed for child abuse cases or for divorces.

Habeas Corpus

A writ (order) to bring a person before a court. In its most common usage, the writ directs a warden or jailer to bring a prisoner or person to court.

Hearsay

A statement made outside of court (i.e., not from the witness stand at the present proceeding) offered into evidence (e.g., deathbed statements, self-incriminating statements, statements made to doctors about medical conditions, etc.).

Huber

A program where the defendant is permitted to maintain employment while residing in jail. The defendant leaves jail on work days only for his work hours, plus limited travel time. Also known as "work release.”

Indictment

A formal accusation of a felony, issued by a grand jury after considering evidence presented by a prosecutor. Grand juries are used more in federal courts rather than state courts.

Information

The official charging document filed at the arraignment in a felony case.

Initial Appearance

The defendant’s first appearance in a criminal case. The defendant receives a copy of the criminal complaint and the judge or court commissioner sets bail and any conditions of release from jail. Bail can either be a signature bond (no money has to be posted for release) or cash bail.

Jurisdiction

The power of the court to decide a case before it, which depends on the type of case and how closely connected the parties are to the county where the court is located. See “venue.”

Juvenile

A person less than 17 years of age.

Juvenile Court

Branches of the circuit court where delinquency cases and cases involving Children in Need of Protection and Services (CHIPS) are heard.

Larceny

The unlawful taking and carrying away of property of another with the intent to keep it from the owner; stealing.

Minor

A person less than 17 years of age. If a person is less than 17, criminal cases are usually handled in juvenile court. Offenses committed after a person’s 17th birthday are handled in circuit court.

Misdemeanor

A crime carrying maximum jail time of one year or less in jail (not prison).

Motion

A request made to the judge which asks for a legal decision about an issue related to the case. A motion may be filed by the state or the defendant before, during, or after trial.

Motive

Whether the defendant had a reason to commit the alleged crime. Motive is not an element of a crime that a prosecutor must prove.

Municipal Court

Local courts that hear cases involving violations of local ordinances. The District Attorney does not appear in these courts; municipalities are represented by their City Attorney.

Negligence

Carelessness; not taking reasonable care under circumstances as they were at the time; something a sensible person would know could hurt someone.

No Contest Plea

A plea in which the facts supporting the crime's elements come from a source other than the defendant (police reports, witnesses statements, photographs, etc.). This is used when the defendant cannot recall his actions, or his verbal guilty plea would be used in a potential civil law suit.

Order

A court decision, usually made in writing.

OWI

Operating While Intoxicated; drunk driving. A person driving a vehicle while significantly impaired by alcohol. First offenses are civil and carry no jail time. Subsequent offenses are misdemeanors, punishable by jail, fines, community service, six points assessed on the driver's record, and a mandatory license suspension. OWIs can become a felony if the driver has been convicted of OWI at least four times since 1989.

Ordinance

A legislative enactment by the governing body of a municipality or county, such as the City of Madison.

Parole

A convict’s conditional release from prison before the expiration of a felony sentence. The convict need not serve the remainder of his sentence, unless they violate terms of release. The convict is under the supervision of a state parole officer during the parole period.

Paternity

A family court case establishing legal fatherhood.

Perjury

Knowingly making a material false statement while under oath to tell the truth.

Plaintiff

The person who originally filed a court action.

Plea

The defendant's response to a criminal charge (guilty, not guilty or no contest).

Plea Agreement

An agreement between the prosecutor and the defendant for the defendant to plead guilty or no contest under certain terms and conditions, which must be approved by the judge, to prevent going to trial. Also called a “plea bargain.”

Preliminary Hearing

Early in felony cases, the state must produce evidence to show a judge that the defendant probably committed a felony crime. The defendant may waive (or give up) his or her right to have this hearing.

Pretrial Conference

The prosecutor meets with the defendant to determine whether the case will be settled by plea or proceed to trial. If the case is settled, the plea and sentencing could occur at the pretrial conference. Judges do not actively participate in pretrial conferences in circuit court, unless the meeting results in a plea.

Probable Cause

Facts and circumstance sufficient to convince a person that a crime has been committed. Mere suspicion or belief, unsupported by facts or circumstances, is insufficient. A search warrant may be authorized, or a warrantless arrest may be made upon probable cause.

Probation

A discretionary sentencing option where the defendant avoids some or all incarceration and is released back into the community under the supervision of a probation officer for a specific time period with rules to follow. Some rules are standard (i.e., not to violate any more laws), while others are specific to the defendant or crime (i.e., alcohol counseling). If the defendant violates any term of probation, the assigned probation officer (or the prosecutor) can ask the sentencing judge to impose additional penalties.

Pro Se

A person who represents themselves in court without an attorney.

Prosecutor

An elected or appointed official vested with authority by a constitution, statute or ordinance to represent the public interest and take legal action against persons violating state criminal laws. In other states they may be called State's Attorneys, County Attorneys, or Commonwealth Attorneys.

Public Defender

See “State Public Defender.”

Quash

To nullify, void or declare invalid.

Read-In

A charge may either be uncharged or dismissed at the time of plea but “read-in” for consideration by the judge at the time of sentencing. The judge can order the defendant to pay restitution for read-in offenses.

Reasonable Doubt

A fair, honest doubt based on the evidence produced at trial (or missing from the proof). A reasonable doubt must be based on reason and common sense, not on speculation.

Resisting / Obstructing A Police Officer

Knowingly and intentionally resisting or obstructing a law enforcement officer who is engaged in lawful acts. The defendant's acts must have actually interfered with the officer in carrying out those duties.

Restitution

Payments ordered by the judge to repay victims for economic losses incurred as the result of the crime (property loss or injuries). Restitution does not include compensation for pain and suffering, emotional distress or other non-economic damages that can result in compensation through a civil law suit.

Self Defense

A legally-justified use of force to protect one's self, another person, or property against some injury attempted by another person.

Sentence

The defendant’s punishment as determined by the judge following a finding of guilt by plea or trial.

Sequestration

A procedure to shelter a trial participant or jury from outside influences, preventing them from watching court proceedings and testimony, or talking outside the courtroom.

Shoplifting

Stealing property from a merchant. Also called retail theft.

Small Claims Court

A division of the circuit court where civil lawsuits seeking a maximum $5,000 damages are heard. The parties often represent themselves without attorneys. Jury trials are not allowed. The judge's or magistrate's decision can be appealed. The District Attorney's Office does not appear in small claims matters.

Stare Decisis

“Let it Stand.” Once a principle of law has been determined to be applicable to certain facts, that principle will be followed in future cases involving substantially identical facts. This body of "case law" -- along with common law and statutes -- becomes the laws of the land.

State Public Defender

A State Public Defender (SPD) is an attorney paid by the state to defend indigent (poor) clients in criminal and certain civil cases.

Status Conference

A hearing to determine if the defendant has an attorney and if he or she wants to have the state produce evidence at the preliminary hearing.

Statute of Limitations

Deadlines set by statutes for filing criminal charges or civil lawsuits within a certain time after events occur; the time limit on the right to seek relief in court. For misdemeanors, the statute of limitations is generally three years; for felonies the statute of limitations is usually six years. Time limits may be extended longer for some crimes, such as sexual assault. Some offenses, such as homicides, have no statute of limitations.

Subpoena

A court order requiring victims or witnesses to appear in court and give testimony or produce documents.

Supreme Court of Wisconsin

The highest appeals court in the state, which usually selects to hear cases involving important constitutional issues and questions of public policy. It has administrative supervision of all state courts, establishing rules for practice and procedure, professional discipline of attorneys, etc.

Transcript

The official typed record of a court hearing or trial.

Trial

A hearing at which evidence is presented to a judge or jury to determine whether the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. A defendant may be found guilty of all, some, or none of the criminal charges.

Venue

The geographic location (city or county) where an alleged crime occurred, and where the trial of the crime must be held.

Victim

A person or entity who suffers direct or threatened physical, financial, or emotional harm as a result of the commission of a crime.

Voir Dire

The process of jury selection, generally involving the judge and attorneys asking potential jurors about their experiences and beliefs to determine if the jurors can render fair verdicts consistent with the law provided by the court.

Warrant

A court order authorizing an arrest.

Witness

A person who comes to court (sometimes by subpoena) and swears under oath to give truthful evidence.

Work Release

A program where the defendant is permitted to maintain employment while residing in jail. The defendant leaves jail on work days only for his work hours, plus limited travel time. Also known as "Huber.”