Your Guide to Legal Lingo in Movies & TV

Posted October 18, 2011 in On the Lighter Side by

Does the lingo on Law & Order: SVU leave you confused? Having trouble keeping the perp

Law & Order: SVU

Courtesy: NBCUniversal

and prosecutor straight on Prime Suspect? Can’t remember the difference between a defendant and a deposition? Today we’re happy to offer a quick and handy legal glossary to help you better understand your favorite law and crime shows.

Acquittal: When someone charged with a crime (known as a defendant) is found not guilty by a judge or jury. Example:

TV Anchorman: O.J. Simpson’s acquittal today sparked both celebration and outrage.
Jackie Aprile, Sr.: In Jersey they would have fried his worthless *&^%$.
(The Sopranos)

Arraignment: The court hearing at which someone accused of a crime is read the charges against him and enters a plea (usually “guilty” or “not guilty”). Example:

McCoy: No crime, no cover up. Three people dead and no one’s accountable.
Schiff: Justice on a budget. What’d you end up charging them with?
Carmichael: Tampering with evidence. An “E” felony.
Schiff: Oh.
Carmichael: We arraigned them, they posted bail. Two thousand dollars. Then they walk away from three murders.
McCoy: We can always hope they jump bail.
(Law & Order)

Discovery: In both criminal and civil cases, the process where both sides exchange information that is relevant to the case. Example:

Brad: Okay. We’re required to turn this over to Ms. Beller and, per the rules of discovery, we’ll provide it with the other one hundred thousand pages of documents that pertain to their production request.
Chris Mott: So you’re going to bury it.
Brad: No, that would be unethical. We’ll simply comply… fully.
(Boston Legal)

Defendant: In a criminal case, the person who has been charged with a crime. In a civil case, the person or company against which a lawsuit has been filed. Example:

Cragen: Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask that you smell the defendant.
(Law & Order: Special Victims Unit)

Deposition: A statement made under oath. A deposition typically includes questions asked of a party to a case or to a witness. Example:

Lawyer: Mr. Zuckerberg, do I have your full attention?
Mark Zuckerberg: [stares out the window] No.
Lawyer: Do you think I deserve it?
Mark Zuckerberg: [looks at the lawyer] What?
Lawyer: Do you think I deserve your full attention?
Mark Zuckerberg: I had to swear an oath before we began this deposition, and I don’t want to perjure myself, so I have a legal obligation to say no.
(The Social Network)

Forensic: The application of scientific knowledge to legal problems. Example:

Sara: You know you pulled me away from a forensic anthropology seminar, right? It’s required. It’s part of the continuing education program.
Grissom: Well, I’m sorry, but everyone seems to have something to do today. I have a teenager who was run over by a taxi. He wasn’t hit by it; that’s not what killed him. He was stabbed, fatally. For now, I have no ID, no suspects and no primary crime scene. I need you.
(CSI: Crime Scene Investigation)

Grand jury: A group of citizens who collectively decide whether the government should indict, or press charges, against someone. Example:


C.J.: We’ll call them Answer A and Answer B.
Josh: Yeah.
C.J. Mr. President does this mean you won’t be seeking a second term? Answer A is ‘You bet. I will absolutely be seeking a second term. I’m looking forward to the campaign. There is great work that is yet to be done.’
Josh: Yes.
C.J.: Answer B…
Josh: ‘Are you out of your mind? I can’t possibly win re-election. I lied about a degenerative illness. I’m the target of a Grand Jury investigation and Congress is about to take me out to lunch. I’d sooner have my family take their clothes off and dance the Tarantella on the Truman Balcony than go through a campaign with this around my neck.’ [pause] You think that’s too on the nose?
C.J.: I do.
(The West Wing)

Indict a ham sandwich: The idea that a grand jury will blindly follow a prosecutor’s wishes and indict (or press charges against) anything, regardless of the evidence. The phrase is attributed to Sol Wachtler, former NY chief justice.

Latin: Many of our legal processes were founded on Roman ideals, which were brought to the lands the Roman Empire conquered. Many scientific, medical and legal terms use Latin because it’s the language of an educational system not open to everyone. One way to keep it closed was to use Latin.


In loco parentis: “‘In loco parentis’ is Latin for ‘in place of the parents,'” says attorney Brent A. Rose, a partner with The Orsini & Rose Law Firm. “The term isn’t often used, but it generally describes the idea that a person or even an institution (such as a school or hospital) may act as a parent. Today, we’d think of it as something like a guardianship. For example, while a child is at school, teachers have a limited right to act in loco parentis and may discipline children, care for minor medical needs or make sure children are properly fed. The right to act in loco parentis can be limited, though. Teachers, for example, can’t violate a student’s free speech rights by forcing that student to salute the American flag or pray.”

Non compos mentis: From Latin, meaning “not of sound mind.”

Plaintiff: The person who initiates a legal action or claim against another party (known as the defendant). Example:

TV Announcer: In a stunning turn of events, a superhero is being sued for saving someone who, apparently, didn’t want to be saved. The plaintiff, Oliver Sansweet, who was foiled in his attempted suicide by Mr. Incredible, has filed suit against the famed superhero in superior court.
Sanweet’s Lawyer: Mr. Sansweet didn’t ask to be saved, Mr. Sansweet didn’t want to be saved! And the injuries received from Mr. Incredible’s “Actions” so called, causes him daily pain!
Mr. Incredible: Hey, I saved your life!
Mr. Sansweet: You didn’t save my life! You ruined my death! That’s what you did!
(The Incredibles)

Prosecutor: An attorney working for a government—city, county, state, etc.—who initiates charges against someone accused of a crime and presents the government’s case in court. Example:

Deakins: The guy’s a prosecutor. He knows losing a case is part of the game.
(Law & Order: Criminal Intent)

Prosecutorial misconduct: In a criminal case, when the prosecutor acts inappropriately.

Let us know if there are other terms you’d like to get to know better.