While you do not need a law degree to be proactive in animal cruelty cases you are directly or indirectly involved with, there may be times when you hear court terminology that may be unfamiliar to you. If it was your own pet that was victimized, the prosecuting attorney should explain any unfamiliar terms to you, however if you are simply showing your support for the prosecution of an animal cruelty case, some terms used in the courtroom may be confusing.

This list is far from complete, however it covers many of the terms most commonly used in criminal prosecutions.

ACQUITTAL: A term for a finding by the jury (or judge if the case was tried to a judge alone) that the defendant is not guilty. An acquittal is final, and cannot be appealed by the state.

ALFORD PLEA: A guilty plea made by the defendant where he or she does not admit to actually committing the crime, but agrees that there is sufficient evidence that he or she could be found guilty. Upon receiving an Alford plea from a defendant, the court may immediately pronounce the defendant guilty and impose sentence as if the defendant had otherwise been convicted of the crime. However, in many states, such as Massachusetts, a plea which "admits sufficient facts" more typically results in the case being continued without a finding and later dismissed. It is the prospect of an ultimate dismissal of charges which engenders most pleas of this type.

The Alford plea differs slightly from the nolo contendere ("no contest") plea. An Alford plea is simply a form of a guilty plea, and, as with other guilty pleas, the judge must see there is some factual basis for the plea. Therefore, a defendant's prior conviction via an Alford plea can be considered in future trials; and it will count as a "strike" if a three strikes law applies. On the other hand, a nolo contendere plea is in no way an admission of guilt, and it cannot be introduced in future trials as evidence of incorrigibility. However, courts do not have to accept a plea of nolo contendere, and usually do not, except in certain nonviolent cases.

APPEAL: A system whereby the State Court of Appeals or State Supreme Court review decisions made by the trial court. There are certain limitations on when either the state or the defendant may file an appeal.

<ARRAIGNMENT: The first appearance in court by the defendant after being charged with the crime. The purpose of the hearing is to assure that the defendant understands the charges against him or her, and to allow time to either hire an attorney or apply to have an attorney appointed. The conditions of release are set, and the date of the next hearing is set.

ARREST: Taking the suspect or defendant into the physical custody of law enforcement. Many offenders are not arrested, but simply show up to court when they have hearings.

BAIL: An amount of money which must be posted with the court for the defendant to be out of jail during the proceedings. If the defendant makes all court appearances, the money is returned at the end of proceedings. If the defendant fails to make court appearances, the bail may be forfeited by the court and would not be returned to the defendant.

BENCH TRIAL: A trial by the judge alone where no jury is involved. A defendant may waive the right to have a jury, and have the case heard by a judge in a bench (or court) trial.

CONDITIONS OF RELEASE: A set of rules the defendant must follow in order to remain out of jail while the criminal case is pending. The conditions might include no contact with the victim or his or her family, no use of alcohol or drugs, or other measures to ensure the safety of the victim.

CONTINUANCE: Postponing a hearing until a later date, usually because one of the parties requests it and it is approved by the judge. Continuances are a common part of the criminal process.

COMPENSATION: The process of reimbursing victims of crime for out-of-pocket expenses they received because of being victimized by crime.

COMPLAINANT: The person who claims to be the victim of a crime, and reports the crime to the police.

COMPLAINT: A document which formally charges the defendant with one or more criminal offenses. The document is drafted and filed with the court by the prosecuting attorney, and gives a brief description of the criminal acts committed by the defendant.

CONVICTION: A finding that the defendant is guilty, either by guilty plea of the defendant, or by a judge or jury after trial. The record of the conviction is maintained by the state for future reference.

COURT CALENDAR: The schedule of all the cases before the court. The schedule is maintained by the court administrator's office.

DEFENDANT: The person charged with a crime in the complaint.

DEFENSE ATTORNEY: The attorney representing the defendant as a client.

DISCOVERY: The process by which the state and the defendant exchange information with each other about the case. The state must provide copies of all police reports and records to the defendant before trial.


FELONY: The highest of the four levels of crime.


GRAND JURY: A group of residents of the county where the criminal act took place, who are convened by the prosecuting attorney to decide if charges should be brought, and if so, which charges. They listen to live testimony from witnesses and review the physical evidence collected by police. Their proceedings are secret, and if they decide charges should be brought, they hand down a document called an indictment. At this stage, the defendant has only been charged with a crime, and has not been found guilty.

GROSS MISDEMEANOR: The second highest of the four levels of crime.

JURISDICTION: The county or city which has the authority to prosecute the defendant for a criminal act - usually the place where the crime occurred.

MISDEMEANOR: The third highest of the four levels of crime: it is punishable by a maximum of 90 days in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

NO CONTEST PLEA (NOLO CONTENDERE): In law, a plea of "nolo contendere" means that the defendant does not admit the charge, but does not dispute it either. This is also called a plea of no contest or, more informally, a "nolo" plea. "Nolo contendere" is Latin and literally means "I do not wish to contend." In putting in such a plea, defendants agree that the court may find them guilty criminally without ever admitting to the act(s) they are charged with.

Generally, defendants pleading nolo contendere will be found guilty of the offense by the court, as there rarely is (or can be, even) an effective defense without contesting the charge at hand. Furthermore, a nolo plea generally has the same effect as a plea or verdict of guilty for purposes of sentencing, and, depending upon the jurisdiction, may have the same effect as a conviction for the purposes of civil disabilities (such as loss of a driver's license or the right to own a firearm) or use as an aggravating factor if the defendants are later convicted of another offense.

Defendants will not, however, be made to allocute to the charges. Also, this plea (unlike a guilty plea or an Alford plea) may not be used against them to establish negligence per se, malice, or even that they actually did the acts which resulted in the conviction, in later civil proceedings related to the same set of facts as the criminal prosecution. It is not an admission of guilt, and provides one major advantage to defendants: It may not be used later as the basis for civil proceedings seeking monetary or other damages against defendants, as can a guilty plea.

OMNIBUS HEARING: A hearing held usually at the request of the defendant to determine whether sufficient evidence exists to continue on to trial, and/or to determine whether the police followed all constitutional and statutory requirements in their investigation. The purpose of the hearing is to request that certain evidence be "suppressed" - or kept out of the trial - because the defendant argues that the police violated his or her rights.

PERPETRATOR: The person who commits a crime - often used to refer to one who commits a sex offense.

PETTY MISDEMEANOR: The fourth highest of the four levels of crime: it is punishable by a fine only and is technically not considered to be a crime. A speeding ticket is an example of a petty misdemeanor.

PLEA NEGOTIATIONS: The process of discussions between the prosecuting attorney, the defense attorney, and sometimes the judge about whether the defendant will plead guilty to one charge or another. These discussions include which charge the defendant might plead guilty to, and what the sentence might be. The victim of a crime has the right to be contacted and informed of plea negotiations, and to be heard about his or her opinion of them.

PRE-SENTENCE INVESTIGATION (PSI): A background investigation by a probation officer to provide the judge with as much information as possible before sentencing a defendant. The victim of a crime should be contacted for input in the PSI as to the effect of the crime upon him or her.

PRE-TRIAL HEARING: A hearing where the prosecuting attorney, defense attorney, defendant, and judge meet to discuss plea negotiations and the legal issues that might come up if a trial is held.

PROBATION: A sentence where the defendant is under the supervision of a probation officer, and which might include county jail time, electric home monitoring, a fine, restitution (repayment) to the victim, counseling or treatment, a letter of apology, or other terms which might prevent the defendant from committing future crime.

PROSECUTING ATTORNEY: The attorney who works for either the county or city government, and seeks to prove that the defendant committed the crime, and hold him or her accountable for the criminal acts. The prosecuting attorney represents the people through the government, and does not personally represent the victim of a crime.

PUBLIC DEFENDER: An attorney employed by the government to represent defendants who cannot afford an attorney.

REPARATIONS: Public money that is used to assist a victim of crime with some financial needs that arise because of crime. Victims apply to a state office for reimbursement.

RESTITUTION: An amount of money that the defendant must pay to the victim for the victim's out-of-pocket costs due to the defendant's criminal acts.

R.O.R.: Release on own recognizance. This means that the defendant will not be required to post bail, but could still be ordered by the court to follow certain conditions of release. In some counties it is called personal recognizance.

SENTENCING: Once a defendant has either plead guilty or has been found guilty at trial, the judge must determine an appropriate consequence, or sentence. The court will normally order a Pre-Sentence Investigation before the sentencing, and will consider the positions of the prosecuting attorney, the defense attorney, and the victim before deciding on an appropriate sentence.

SENTENCING GUIDELINES: A chart developed to guide or suggest similar sentences around the state for similar crimes. The sentence suggested depends upon the severity of the crime of which the defendant was convicted, and the extent of criminal history of the defendant. The guidelines will suggest whether prison or probation are appropriate, and if prison is suggested, the length of the prison sentence.

SUBPOENA: A court order requiring a person to appear in court and testify truthfully.

SUMMONS: A document ordering the defendant to appear in court on a certain date for the arraignment to begin the criminal proceedings.

TRIAL: A process in court where either a jury or a judge alone will listen to witnesses, observe photographs or other items of evidence, and decide whether it was proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime(s) with which he or she was charged. The prosecuting attorney will present the witnesses and evidence first, after which the defense attorney may or may not call witnesses. Each attorney may ask questions of the witnesses called by the other attorney, and each may address the judge or jury to argue the case. Once all the information has been given to the jury or judge, the jury or judge will "deliberate" and make a decision as to whether the defendant's guilt was proven beyond a reasonable doubt. A jury's decision must be unanimous.

Importantly, many times a jury may decide that they cannot say beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was guilty, even though they think possibly he or she committed the crime. The law requires a high level of proof to find someone guilty of a crime, and the level is sometimes not reached even when the defendant actually committed the crime.

VICTIM IMPACT STATEMENT: A statement submitted by the victim of the crime if the defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty. The purpose of the statement is to tell the judge about how the crime has affected the victim personally, and the outcome that the victim would like to see. Victim impact statements are not common in animal cruelty cases, however they are sometimes permitted.

VICTIM/WITNESS ASSISTANT/ADVOCATE: A person who "ushers" the victim through the criminal justice system, providing information, resources, and support to victims of crime.

WARRANT: If the court decides that the defendant should be arrested, either at the very beginning of the proceedings, or after he or she failed to show up at a court hearing, the court will issue a warrant authorizing law enforcement to place the defendant under arrest.

Common Acronyms

A&D - probation arrest and detention warrant
ROR - release on own recognizance
ADC - adult detention center
BAC - blood alcohol content
BCA - Bureau of Criminal Apprehension
CSC - criminal sexual conduct
SO - sheriff's office or sex offender
HRO - harassment restraining order
DNA - medical term for genetic code
PO - probation officer
DOC - Department of Corrections
UA - urinalysis
OFP - order for protection
PD - public defender or police department
PSI - pre-sentence investigation