Words You Need to Know

Glossary of Terms

Because your path to freedom involves legal processes, you will hear a lot of new words, as well as familiar words being used in new ways.

Use this list to help you understand some of the key terms that will be used during the process.

Remember to ask questions. Whenever there are terms or parts of the process you don’t understand, ask someone to explain it to you.


(In asylum proceedings) The infliction of serious suffering or harm, caused by government action or inaction, upon people who differ in a way regarded as offensive (race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion) in a manner condemned by civilized governments.


A request to a court. (Also sometimes called an "application.")


The defendant's response to a criminal charge, generally guilty or not guilty.


The process through which the prosecutor and the defense attorney try to reach an agreement where the defendant pleads guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence.

Pro Se

Pro se is a Latin adjective meaning "for self", that is applied to someone who represents himself (or herself) without a lawyer in a court proceeding, whether as a defendant or a plaintiff and whether the matter is civil or criminal.

Probable cause

Sufficient reason based upon known facts to believe a crime has been committed, or that certain property is connected with a crime. Probable cause means there is more evidence for than against. Probable cause must exist for a law enforcement officer to make an arrest without a warrant, search without a warrant, or seize property in the belief the items were evidence of a crime


To try to get a court to declare someone guilty of a crime. A district attorney prosecutes cases against persons thought to have committed violations of state criminal law.


The attorney who represents the state and the victim. He or she tries to present evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime as charged. A prosecutor will be assigned for criminal cases but not civil ones.

Protective Order

A protective order is a court order that can make someone who has hurt an adult or teenager keep away from that person's home, school or place of work. A minor can ask for a protective order against a partner, parent or household member who is physically hurting of threatening him/her. Victims of sexual assault may also seek protective orders.

Public defender

An attorney or staff of attorneys having responsibility for the legal defense of those charged with a criminal offense who are unable to afford or obtain legal assistance.


A person outside his or her own country who is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country because of persecution, or a well founded fear of persecution, on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.


Operating procedures of government agencies.

Restraining order

A court demand for someone to behave in a certain way and to stop violations of laws or court orders. A court can issue a restraining order preventing someone from visiting someone else. Also called protection order, order of protection, etc.


The punishment or penalty that the judge gives to a person who has plead guilty or whom a jury has found guilty.

Service of process

In the context of a restraining order, the actual delivery of court paperwork that informs a person of an upcoming hearing and any temporary restraining orders against him/her. When someone receives this paperwork, s/he has been served.


A written compromise reached in a civil case and approved by a judge.


Each state defines stalking differently. The Stalking Resource Center of the National Center for Victims of Crime provides stalking-related state and federal statutes and other stalking-related info. The Stalking Resource Center website is at http://victimsofcrime.org/our-programs/stalking-resource-center.



Government; society; a group of people living under a single government; the United States or one of the 50 states.


An order of the court that commands a witness to appear at a certain time and place to give testimony about a specific matter or case. Any person who fails to appear as required by the subpoena may be punished as contempt of court.


To stop temporarily or to postpone on certain conditions.