What are they saying? Courtroom Terms for the First Offender

Being arrested and having to go to court can be a very intimidating experience. One that can seem very overwhelming. While hiring a good criminal defense lawyer can go a long way towards alleviating most, if not all of the stress associated with having to go to court on pending criminal charges, knowing some of the basic terminology associated with the criminal justice system is helpful as well.

The purpose of this article is to provide a basic explanation of some commonly used jargon, so you, the reader, will have a little better grasp of what is going on in court. It is still strongly advised that you consult with and retain an experienced criminal attorney when facing criminal charges. Here are some basic terms you should familiarize yourself with:


Any crime that is punishable by more than one year in jail.

Basic examples: Murder, Reckless Homicide, Burglary, Robbery, Aggravated Battery, Unlawful Possession of a Controlled Substance , Unlawful Possession of a Controlled Substance with Intent to Deliver, and Delivery of a Controlled Substance.

Incarceration is typically in a prison with the Department of Corrections.


Any crime that has as its maximum punishment a term of incarceration less than a year

Basic examples: Most Retail Thefts, Battery, Criminal Damage to Property, Criminal Trespass, Unlawful Possession of Drug Paraphernalia, Prostitution, Most Possessions of Cannabis, Resisting Police Officer.

Incarceration is typically in a county jail.


A trial where twelve to six people from the community hear the evidence and arguments from attorneys and decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty of a crime.


A trial where the judge ultimately decides whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty of a crime. The same standard of proof is utilized as in a jury trial and both sides are able to present witnesses and cross examine witnesses.


The attorney who is responsible for prosecuting a case and gaining a criminal conviction.


The attorney who is appointed by the Court to represent a defendant who is unable to afford a private attorney and could face the possibility of jail if convicted of the crime he is charged with.


Often referred to as a “1 st appearance”.

It is the intitial court appearance where a defendant is brought before the judge and informed of what his charges are and to enter an initial plea to the charges.


A hearing conducted by a judge to determine if there is sufficient evidence to prosecute a person accused of a crime.

If sufficient evidence or “probable cause” is found by the judge then a formal charge known as an “information” will be filed in the trial court.

The rules of evidence do not strictly apply at preliminary hearings as there is no determination of guilt or evidence just whether enough evidence exists to go forward with criminal charges.

Henry and Livingston Counties utilize the preliminary hearing method of charging felonies.


A group of people chosen to sit in a group in proceedings where the defendant and his attorney are not present and decide whether to issue formal criminal charges called indictments.

If a grand jury feels that evidence is strong enough to go forward with criminal charges they issue a bill of indictment (true bill).

This is an alternative way of charging felonies to that of the preliminary hearing.

Peoria and Tazewell Counties utilize grand juries to charge their felonies.


Also known as a Motion to Suppress Evidence and Quash Arrest it is often mistakenly referred to as a “Motion to Squash” by defendants.

It is a motion that requests that the court prohibit the introduction of illegally obtained evidence at trial.


The compulsory disclosure of documents, photos, and witnesses prior to trial by each party to the other so that each side is apprised of what evidence will be presented at trial.


Often called a pre-trial conference.

It is an informal meeting where the opposing attorneys confer with eachother and sometimes the judge to work toward a disposition of the case.

Matters of evidence, scheduling of the trial and any need for additional time to file pre-trial motions are usually discussed at scheduling conferences.

Plea negotiations often occur at pre-trial conferences.


An agreement as to what sentence will be imposed upon a defendant.

The facts and circumstances of the case, as well as, the attorney’s skills at negotiation play a large role in what terms are part of a negotiated plea disposition.

Over 90% of criminal cases are disposed of via a negotiated plea disposition.


Occurs if a person has been found guilty at trial or admits guilt but has not reached an agreement with the prosecutor as to the sentence that is to be imposed.

Evidence that is not admissible at a criminal trial such as character references and hearsay is admissible at a sentencing hearing.

Allows the defense attorney to argue for a lighter sentence than what the prosecutor is seeking in a case.

I hope that after reading this you have a better understanding of some of the basic terms used in criminal courts. If you have further questions, please complete the online submission form at the bottom of this webpage.


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