Check back later if you don’t see the legal term you’re looking for, as this section is being frequently updated.
Abet. To help someone commit a crime, including helping them escape from police or plan the crime.
Abrogate. To annul or repeal a law or pass legislation contradicting the prior law.
Accessory. A person helps in the commission of a crime by driving the getaway car, providing the weapons, assisting in the planning, providing an alibi, or hiding the principal offender after the crime. Usually the accessory is not immediately present during the crime, but must be aware that the crime is going to be committed or has been committed.
Accomplice. Someone who assists in the commission of a crime and, unlike a mere accessory, is usually present or directly aids in the crime (like holding a gun on the bank guard while the vault is looted, or holding a victim of assault and battery). Also unlike an accessory, who can claim being only a subordinate figure, the accomplice may share in the same charge and punishment as the principal criminal.
Admissible evidence. Evidence which the trial judge finds is useful in helping the trier-of-fact (a jury if there is one or the judge if there is not) and which is relevant, material, and does not violate hearsay rules and other rules of evidence.
Admission against interest. An admission of the truth of a fact by any person, but especially by the parties to a lawsuit, when a statement obviously would do that person harm, be embarrassing, or be against his/her personal or business interests. Another party can quote in court an admission against interest even though it is only hearsay.
Affiant. A person who signs an affidavit and swears to its truth before a notary public.
Affidavit. Any written document in which the signer swears under oath before a notary public that the statements in the document are true.
Aid and abet. Help commit a crime.
Appellant. The party who appeals a trial court decision they lost.
Appellate court. A court which hears appeals from lower court decisions. Appellate courts typically consist of a ”panel” of three or more judges.
Appellee. The party to an appeal who won at the trial court level.
Arraign. To bring a criminal defendant before the court, at which time the charges are presented to them, the opportunity to enter a plea (or ask for a continuance to plead) is given, a determination of whether the party has a lawyer is made (or whether a lawyer needs to be appointed) and, sometimes, setting a bail amount.
Arrest. To take or hold a suspected criminal with legal authority, as by a law enforcement officer. An arrest may be made legally based on a warrant issued by a judicial official after receiving a sworn statement of probable cause to believe there has been a crime committed by the person, for an apparent crime committed in the presence of the arresting officer, or upon other probable cause to believe that person committed a crime.
Arrest warrant. A judge’s order to law enforcement officers to arrest and bring to jail a person charged with a crime, also called a warrant of arrest The warrant is typically issued upon a sworn statement of probable cause, by a police office or an alleged victim, to believe that the accused person committed a crime.
Assault. The threat or attempt to strike another, provided the target is aware of the danger. The assaulter must be reasonably capable of carrying through the attack. Assault is both a criminal wrong, for which one may be charged and tried, and civil wrong for which the target may sue for damages due to the assault, including for mental distress.
Assault and battery. The combination of the assault (which consists of a threat or attempt to strike another, provided the target is aware of the danger) and actual application of force, however slight, to the person of another, directly or
indirectly, for the purpose of causing harm (battery). They are also intentional civil wrongs for which the victim may file a suit for damages, including for mental distress.
Attorney-of-record. The attorney who has appeared in court or signed pleadings or other forms on behalf of a client. The attorney remains the attorney-of-record until they are allowed by the court to withdraw or after the case is closed.
Attorney work product. Written materials, charts, notes of conversations and investigations, and other materials directed toward preparation of a case or other legal representation. Their importance is that they generally cannot be required to be introduced in court or otherwise revealed to the other side.
Attorney-client privilege. The requirement that an attorney may not reveal and communications between them and their client, under the theory that a person should be able to speak freely and honestly with their attorney without fear of future revelation.
Attorney-in-fact. Someone specifically named by another through a written “power of attorney” to act for that person in the conduct of the appointer’s business.
Battery. The intentional application of force, however slight, to the person of another, directly or indirectly, for the purpose of causing harm. It is also a civil wrong for which the victim may file a suit for damages, including for mental distress. It is often coupled with “assault” (which is the threat or attempt to strike another, provided the target is aware of the danger) in “assault and battery.”
Beyond a reasonable doubt. The burden of proof in a criminal prosecution. Under North Carolina law, proof that fully satisfies or entirely convinces the jury of the accused’s guilt.
Blackmail. The crime of threatening to reveal embarrassing, disgraceful, or damaging facts (or rumors) about a person to the public, family, spouse or associates unless paid off to not carry out the threat. It is one form of extortion (which may include other threats such as physical harm or damage to property).
Breaking or entering. The criminal act of entering a residence or other enclosed property through the slightest amount of force (even pushing open a door) without authorization.
Bribery. The crime of giving or taking money or some other valuable item in order to influence a public official (any governmental employee) in the performance of their duties. Bribery includes paying to get government contracts (cutting in the roads commissioner for a secret percentage of the profit), giving a bottle of liquor to a building inspector to ignore a violation or grant a permit, or selling stock to a Congressman at a cut-rate price.
Burden of proof. In a criminal case, the burden of proof required of the prosecutor is “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Case of first impression. A case in which a question of interpretation of law is presented which has never arisen before in any reported case. Sometimes, it is only of first impression in the particular state or jurisdiction, so decisions from other states or the federal courts may be examined as a guideline.
Certiorari. A writ (order) of a higher court to a lower court to send all the documents in a case to it so the higher court can review the lower court’s decision. Certiorari is most commonly used by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is selective about which cases it will hear on appeal. To appeal to the Supreme Court one applies to the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, which it grants at its discretion and only when at least three members believe that the case involves a sufficiently significant federal question in the public interest. By denying such a writ the Supreme Court says it will let the lower court decision stand, particularly if it conforms to accepted precedents (previously decided cases).
Challenge for cause. A request that a prospective juror be dismissed because there is a specific and forceful reason to believe the person cannot be fair, unbiased, or capable of serving as a juror. Causes include acquaintanceship with either of the parties, one of the attorneys or a witness, the potential juror’s expression during voir dire (questioning of the prospective jurors) of inability to be unbiased due to prior experience in a similar case (having been convicted of drunk driving, being a battered wife, etc.), any obvious prejudice, or inability to serve (such as being mentally disturbed). The judge determines if the person shall be dismissed. Challenges and dismissal for cause differ from peremptory challenges, which each side may use to dismiss potential jurors without stating any reason.
Character witness. A person who testifies in a trial on behalf of a person (usually a criminal defendant) as to that person’s good ethical qualities and morality both by the personal knowledge of the witness and the person’s reputation in the community. Such testimony is primarily relevant when the party’s honesty or morality is an issue, particularly in most criminal cases and civil cases such as fraud.
Circumstantial evidence. Evidence in a trial which is not directly from an eyewitness or participant and requires some reasoning to prove a fact. There is a public perception that such evidence is weak (“all they have is circumstantial evidence”), but the probable conclusion from the circumstances may be so strong that there can be little doubt as to a vital fact (“beyond a reasonable doubt” in a criminal case, and “a preponderance of the evidence” in a civil case). Particularly in criminal cases, “eyewitness” (“I saw Frankie shoot Johnny”) type evidence is often lacking and may be unreliable, so circumstantial evidence becomes essential. Prior threats to the victim, fingerprints found at the scene of the crime, ownership of the murder weapon, and the accused being seen in the neighborhood, certainly point to the suspect as being the killer, but each bit of evidence is circumstantial.
Closing argument. The final argument by an attorney on behalf of his/her client after all evidence has been produced for both sides. The lawyer for the plaintiff or prosecution (in a criminal case) makes the first closing argument, followed by counsel for the defendant, and then the plaintiff’s attorney can respond to the defense argument. Unlike the “opening statement,” which is limited to what is going to be proved, the “closing argument” may include opinions on the law, comment on the opposing party’s evidence, and usually requests a judgment or verdict (jury’s decision) favorable to the client.
Compound question. The combination of more than one questions into what seems to be a single question asked of a witness. A compound question can be objected to by opposing counsel since it’s confusing to the witness, who is entitled to answer each question separately. If the objection is sustained the question must be withdrawn and asked in a series of separate questions.
Concurrent sentences. Sentences for more than one crime which are to be served at one time. When a criminal defendant is convicted of two or more crimes, a judge sentences him/her to a certain period of time for each crime. Then out of compassion, leniency, plea bargaining or the fact that the several crimes are interrelated, the judge will rule that the sentences may all be served at the same time, with the longest period controlling.
Common law. The traditional unwritten law of England, based on custom and usage, which began to develop over a thousand years before the founding of the United States. This in distinguishable from statutory law, which is created by a state legislature or Congress.
Conspiracy. When people work together by agreement to commit an illegal act. A conspiracy may exist when the parties use legal means to accomplish an illegal result, or to use illegal means to achieve something that in itself is lawful. To prove a conspiracy, those involved must have agreed to the plan before all the actions have been taken; if not, it’s just a series of independent illegal acts.
Constructive possession. When a person does not have actual possession, but has the power to control or dispose of an asset or thing, he has constructive possession. Having the key to a safe deposit box, for example, gives one constructive possession. The same principle can apply to possession of drugs or other contraband.
Contempt of court. There are essentially two types of contempt: (1) being rude or disrespectful to the judge or other attorneys or causing a disturbance in the of the court.
Corroborating evidence. Evidence that strengthens, adds to, or confirms already existing evidence.
Cross-examination. The opportunity to question a witness who has testified on behalf of the opposing party. The questions on cross-examination are generally limited to the subjects covered in the direct examination of the witness. Importantly, the attorney may ask leading questions, in which he/she is allowed to suggest answers or put words in the witness’s mouth. (For example, “Isn’t it true that you told Mrs. Jones she had done nothing wrong?” which is leading, as compared to, “Did you say anything to Mrs. Jones?”) A strong cross-examination can force contradictions, expressions of doubts, or even complete obliteration of a witness’s prior carefully rehearsed testimony. On the other hand, repetition of a witness’ s story, vehemently defended, can strengthen their credibility.
De novo. Latin for “anew,” which means starting over, as in a trial de novo. For example, a decision in a small claims case may be appealed to a local trial court, which may try the case again, de novo.
Demonstrative evidence. Actual objects, pictures, models, or other devices which are supposedly intended to clarify the facts for the judge and jury. These are not supposed to be actual evidence; instead, they are for the purpose of aiding the understanding of evidence.
Deportation. The act of expelling a non-citizen from a country, usually because they have a criminal record, committed a crime, lied on their entry documents, are in the country illegally, or their presence is deemed by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the FBI, or State Department officials to be against the best interests of the United States.
Direct examination. The questioning of a witness by the party that calls the witness as a part of their case.
Documentary evidence. Any document (paper) which is presented and allowed as evidence in a trial or hearing, as distinguished from oral testimony. It must be proved by other evidence from a witness that the paper is genuine (called “laying a foundation”).
Double jeopardy. Placing someone on trial a second time for an offense for which he has been previously acquitted, even when new incriminating evidence has been unearthed. This is specifically prohibited by the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states “nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb . . . .” However, in rare instances a person may be tried for a different crime based on some of the same facts which were used to try him/her when he/she was acquitted. A prime example is the use of the Federal Civil Rights Act to charge a person with violation of another’s civil rights by killing him, after a state murder case had resulted in an acquittal, as happened in the 1994 trials for the deaths of civil rights activists and freedom riders Andrew Goldman, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Viola Liuzzo, that occurred thirty years earlier.
DWI (Driving while Impaired). A person commits the offense of impaired driving if he operates any vehicle upon any highway, street, or public vehicular area within this State (1) while under the influence of an impairing substance, (2) after having consumed sufficient alcohol that he has, at any relevant time after the driving, an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more (the results of a chemical analysis shall be deemed sufficient evidence to prove a person’s alcohol concentration but a person may assert that a chemical analysis result is inadmissible on grounds that the preventive maintenance procedures required by the regulations of the Department of Health and Human Services had not been performed on the intoxilyzer machine within the time limits prescribed by those regulations, or (3) with any amount of a Schedule I controlled substance, as listed in N.C. General Statutes section 90-89, or its metabolites, in his blood or urine. The fact that a person charged with violating this section is or has been legally entitled to use alcohol or a drug is not a defense.
DWI (Driving while Impaired) in a Commercial Vehicle. A person commits the offense of impaired driving in a commercial motor vehicle if he operates a commercial motor vehicle upon any highway, any street, or any public vehicular area within the State (1) while under the influence of an impairing substance, (2) after having consumed sufficient alcohol that he has, at any relevant time after the driving, an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more (the results of a chemical analysis shall be deemed sufficient evidence to prove a person’s alcohol concentration but a person may assert that a chemical analysis result is inadmissible on grounds that the preventive maintenance procedures required by the regulations of the Department of Health and Human Services had not been performed on the intoxilyzer machine within the time limits prescribed by those regulations, or (3) with any amount of a Schedule I controlled substance, as listed in N.C. General Statutes section 90-89, or its metabolites, in his blood or urine. The fact that a person charged with violating this section is or has been legally entitled to use alcohol or a drug is not a defense.
Due process of law. A fundamental principle of fairness in all legal matters, especially in the courts. All legal procedures set by statute and court practice, including notice of rights, must be followed for each individual so that no prejudicial or unequal treatment will result. While somewhat indefinite, the term can be gauged by its aim to safeguard both private and public rights against unfairness. The universal guarantee of due process is in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides “No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” and is applied to all states by the 14th Amendment. From this basic principle flows many legal decisions determining both procedural and substantive rights.
Duress. The use of force, false imprisonment or threats (and possibly psychological torture or “brainwashing”) to compel someone to act contrary to their wishes or interests. A defendant in a criminal prosecution may raise the defense that others used duress to force them to take part in an alleged crime. The most famous case is that of publishing heiress Patty Hearst, who was kidnapped, raped, imprisoned and psychologically tortured until she joined her captors in a bank holdup and issued statements justifying her actions. She was later convicted of the bank robbery but was eventually pardoned by President Jimmy Carter.
Dying declaration. The statement of a mortally injured person who is aware he/she is about to die, telling who caused the injury and possibly the circumstances (“Frankie shot me”). Although hearsay since the dead person cannot testify in person, it is admissible on the theory that a dying person has no reason not to tell the truth.
Embezzlement. The crime of stealing the funds or property of an employer, company, or government or misappropriating money or assets held in trust.
En banc. French for “in the bench.” It signifies a decision by the full court of all the appeals judges of an intermediate court of appeals instead of by what is usuallly a ”panel” of three of the judges. The larger number sit in judgment when the court feels there is a particularly significant issue at stake or when requested by one or both parties to the case and agreed to by the court.
Entrapment. In criminal law, the act of law enforcement officers or government agents inducing or encouraging a person to commit a crime when the potential criminal expresses a desire not to go ahead. The key to entrapment is whether the idea for the commission or encouragement of the criminal act originated with the police or government agents instead of with the “criminal.” Entrapment, if proved, is a defense to a criminal prosecution. The accused often claims entrapment in so-called “stings” in which undercover agents buy or sell narcotics, prostitutes’ services, or arrange to purchase goods believed to be stolen.
Equal protection of the law. The right of all persons to have the same access to the law and courts and to be treated equally by the law and courts, both in procedures and in the substance of the law It is akin to the right to due process of law, but in particular applies to equal treatment as an element of fundamental fairness. The most famous case on the subject is Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) in which Chief Justice Earl Warren, for a unanimous Supreme Court, ruled that “separate but equal” educational facilities for blacks were inherently unequal and unconstitutional since the segregated school system did not give all students equal rights under the law. The principle is stated in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution: “No State shall…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Evidence. Every type of proof legally which the judge allows to be presented at trial which is intended to prove the alleged facts material to the case. It can include oral testimony of witnesses, including experts on technical matters, documents, public records, objects, photographs and depositions (testimony under oath taken before trial) It also includes so-called “circumstantial evidence” which is intended to create belief by showing surrounding circumstances which logically lead to a conclusion of fact. Comments and arguments by the attorneys and statements by the judge are not evidence. Charts, maps and models which are used to demonstrate or explain matters are not evidence themselves, but testimony based upon such items and marks on such material may be evidence. Evidence must survive objections of opposing attorneys that it is irrelevant, immaterial or violates rules against “hearsay” (statements by a party not in court), and/or other technicalities.
Ex parte. Latin meaning “for one party,” referring to motions, hearings, or orders granted on the request of and for the benefit of one party only. This is an exception to the basic rule of court procedure that both parties must be present at any argument before a judge, and to the otherwise strict rule that an attorney may not notify a judge without previously notifying the opposition. Ex parte matters are usually temporary orders (like a restraining order or temporary custody) pending a formal hearing or an emergency request for a continuance. Most jurisdictions require at least a diligent attempt to contact the other party’s lawyer of the time and place of any ex parte hearing.
Ex post facto. Latin for “after the fact,” which refers to laws adopted after an act is committed making it illegal although it was legal when done, or increasing the penalty for a crime after it is committed. Such laws are specifically prohibited by the U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 9. Therefore, if a state legislature or Congress enacts new rules of proof or longer sentences, those new rules or sentences do not apply to crimes committed before the new law was adopted.
Exclusionary rule. The rule that evidence secured by illegal means and in bad faith cannot be introduced in a criminal trial. The technical term is that it is “excluded” upon a motion to suppress made by the lawyer for the accused. It is based on the constitutional requirement that “no [person] can be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
Exculpatory. Evidence that may justify or excuse an accused defendant’s actions and will tend to show the defendant is not guilty or has no criminal intent.
Expert witness. A person who is a specialist in a subject, often technical, who may present his/her expert opinion without having been a witness to any occurrence relating to the lawsuit or criminal case. It is an exception to the rule against giving an opinion in trial, provided that the expert is qualified by evidence of his/her expertise, training, and special knowledge. If the expertise is challenged, the attorney for the party calling the “expert” must make a showing of the necessary background through questions in court, and the trial judge has discretion to qualify the witness or rule he/she is not an expert, or is an expert on limited subjects. Experts are usually paid handsomely for their services and may be asked by the opposition the amount they are receiving for their work on the case. In most jurisdictions, both sides must exchange the names and addresses of proposed experts to allow pre-trial depositions.
Extortion. Obtaining money or property by threat to a victim’s property or loved ones, intimidation, or false claim of a right (such as pretending to be an IRS agent). It is a felony in all states, except that a direct threat to harm the victim is usually treated as the crime of robbery. Blackmail is a form of extortion in which the threat is to expose embarrassing, damaging information to family, friends or the public.
Fact finder (finder of fact). The jury or judge (if there is no jury) who decides if facts have been proven.
False arrest. Physically detaining someone for an alleged crime without the legal right to do so. Quite often this involves private security people or other owners or employees of retail establishments who hold someone without having seen a crime committed in their presence or pretend that they are police officers. Other common false arrest situations include an arrest by a police officer of a person without probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. False arrest can be the basis of a lawsuit for damages, including mental distress and embarrassment. It can also lead to false imprisonment.
False imprisonment. Intentionally and unlawfully detaining a person against their will (i.e., compelling them to remain where they do not wish to remain or go where they do not wish to go) through the use of actual force, bodily contact, confinement, physical restraint, threatening words or conduct that would cause a person to have a reasonable apprehension that force will be used against them if they do not submit. This may sometimes result from a false arrest. False imprisonment can be the basis of a lawsuit for damages, including mental distress and embarrassment.
Felony. (1) A crime sufficiently serious to be punishable by death or a term in state or federal prison, as distinguished from a misdemeanor which is only punishable by confinement to county or local jail and/or a fine; (2) a crime carrying a minimum term of one year or more in state prison, since a year or less can be served in county jail; however, a sentence upon conviction for a felony may sometimes be less than one year at the discretion of the judge and within limits set by statute.
Felony murder doctrine. A rule of criminal statutes that any death which occurs during the commission of a felony is first degree murder, and all participants in that felony or attempted felony can be charged with and found guilty of murder. A typical example is a robbery involving more than one criminal, in which one of them shoots, beats to death or runs over a store clerk, killing the clerk. Even if the death were accidental, all of the participants may be found guilty of felony murder, including those who did no harm, had no gun, and/or did not intend to hurt anyone.
Finding. The determination of a factual question vital (contributing) to a decision in a case by the trier of fact (jury or judge sitting without a jury) after a trial of a lawsuit, often referred to as findings of fact. A finding of fact is distinguished from a conclusion of law which is determined by the judge as the sole legal expert. Findings of fact and conclusions of law, need not be made if waived or not requested by the trial attorneys, leaving just the bare judgment in the case.
Forbearance. An intentional delay in collecting a debt or demanding performance on a contract, usually for a specific period of time. Forbearance is often consideration for a promise by the debtor to pay an added amount.
Foreseeability. Reasonable anticipation of the possible results of an action.
Fruit of the poisonous tree. In criminal law, the doctrine that evidence discovered due to information found through illegal search or other unconstitutional means (such as a forced confession) may not be introduced by a prosecutor. The theory is that the tree (original illegal evidence) is poisoned and thus taints what grows from it. For example, as part of a coerced admission made without giving a prime suspect the so-called “Miranda warnings” (statement of rights, including the right to remain silent and what he/she says will be used against them), the suspect tells the police the location of stolen property. Since the admission cannot be introduced as evidence in trial, neither can the stolen property.
General appearance. An attorney’s representation of a client in court for all purposes connected with a pending lawsuit or prosecution. After “appearing” in court, the attorney is then responsible for all future appearances in court unless officially relieved by court order or substitution of another attorney. A lawyer may be leery of making a general appearance unless all details of representation (such as the amount and payment of their fees) have been worked out with the client. This is distinguished from a special appearance, which is only for a particular purpose or court session and does not make the attorney responsible for future conduct of the case.
Grand jury. A jury in each county or federal court district which serves for a term of a year. Grand juries hear evidence of criminal accusations in possible felonies presented by the District Attorney and decide whether the accused should be indicted and tried for a crime.
Habeas corpus. Latin for “you have the body,” it is a writ issued by a court which directs the law enforcement officials (prison administrators, police or sheriff) who have custody of a prisoner to appear in court with the prisoner to help the judge determine whether the prisoner is lawfully in prison or jail. The writ is obtained by petition to a judge in the county or district where the prisoner is incarcerated, and the judge sets a hearing on whether there is a legal basis for holding the prisoner. Habeas corpus is a protection against illegal confinement, such as holding a person without charges, when due process obviously has been denied, bail is excessive, parole has been granted, an accused has been improperly surrendered by the bail bondsman, or probation has been summarily terminated without cause. The writ of habeas corpus can be employed procedurally in federal district courts to challenge the constitutionality of a state court conviction.
Habitual criminal. Under the statutes of many states, a person who has been convicted of either two or three felonies (or of numerous misdemeanors), a fact which may increase punishment for any further criminal convictions.
Harmless error. An error by a judge in the conduct of a trial which an appellate court finds is not sufficient for it to reverse or modify the lower court’s judgment at trial. Harmless error would include: a technical error which has no bearing on the outcome of the trial, an error that was corrected (such as allowing testimony and then ordering it stricken and admonishing the jury to ignore it), the issue affected by the error was found in the appellant’s favor (such as hearsay evidence on premeditation, but the jury found no premeditation), and the appeals court’s view that even though there were errors the appealing party could not have won in trial in any event. This last gives the appeals court broad latitude to rule that errors were not significant. It is frustrating to appealing parties and their attorneys for the appeals court to rule that there were indeed several errors, and then say: “However, they appear to be harmless.”
Hearsay. Second-hand evidence in which the witness is not telling what they know personally, but what others have said to them. In addition to witness testimony, hearsay includes documents that were prepared out of court.
Hearsay exceptions. Although hearsay is generally inadmissible, there are exceptions to the rule that allow hearsay testimony. Such exceptions include: (1) evidence presented by a witness that is not favorable to the witness (called an “admission against interest”); (2) business entries made in the regular course of business, when a qualified witness can identify the records and tell how they were kept; (3) official government records which can be shown to be properly kept; (4) a “learned treatise,” which means historical works, scientific books, published art works, maps, or charts;(5) judgments in other cases; (6) a spontaneous excited or startled utterance (“oh, God, the bus hit the little girl”); (7) a statement which explains a person’s state of mind at the time of an event; (8) prior testimony, such as in deposition (testimony taken under oath outside of court), or at a hearing, if the witness is not available (including being dead); and (9) testimony or documents that a judge concludes is reliable under the totality of the circumstances.
Hearsay rule. The basic rule that testimony or documents which quote persons not in court are not admissible. Because the person who supposedly knew the facts is not in court, the trier of fact cannot judge the demeanor and credibility of the alleged first-hand witness, and the other party’s lawyer cannot cross-examine them.
Heat of passion. In a criminal case, when the accused was in an uncontrollable rage at the time of commission of the alleged crime. If so, it may reduce the charge, indictment or judgment down from murder to manslaughter, since the passion precluded the defendant having premeditation or being fully mentally capable of knowing what he or she was doing.
Issue of first impression. A legal issue which has never been decided by a particular jurisdiction’s appellate court and, therefore, there is no precedent for the court to follow. To reach a decision the court must use its own logic, analogies from prior rulings by appeals courts and refer to commentaries and articles by legal scholars.
Homicide. The killing of a human being due to the act or omission of another. Included among homicides are murder and manslaughter, but not all homicides are a crime, particularly when there is a lack of criminal intent. Non-criminal homicides include killing in self-defense, or a misadventure like a hunting accident or automobile wreck without a violation of law like reckless driving.
Hot pursuit. When a law enforcement officer is so close behind the alleged criminal that they may continue the chase into another jurisdiction without stopping or seeking a warrant for an arrest in the other county or state. It is equivalent to fresh pursuit.
Hung jury. Slang for a hopelessly deadlocked jury in a criminal case, in which neither side is able to prevail. Usually it means there is no unanimous verdict. If the jury is hung the trial judge will declare a mistrial. The prosecutor can decide not to re-try the case, particularly if a majority of the jury favored acquittal.
Impeach. To discredit the testimony of a witness by showing they have not told the truth, or have been inconsistent, by introducing contrary evidence, including statements made outside of the courtroom in depositions or in statements of the witness heard by another.
In camera. Latin for “in chambers.” This refers to a hearing or discussions with the judge in the privacy of his chambers (office rooms) or when spectators and jurors have been excluded from the courtroom.
In chambers. Referring to discussions or hearings held in the judge’s office, called his chambers. It is also called “in camera.”
In limine. Latin for “at the threshold,” referring to a motion before a trial begins. A motion to suppress illegally obtained evidence is such a motion.