A motion in limine is a motion which is made before a trial starts. Such motions are filed and discussed in front of the judge only, in an area where the jury is not present, in case the content of the motion could prejudice the jury. Commonly motions in limine are filed in the judge's chambers because this location is private and convenient for all parties.
The Latin phrase “in limine” means “at the threshold,” implying that such motions are filed at the start of the trial. Lawyers for either side can file such motions and both attorneys may file motions in limine to address various issues related to the case. The purpose of a motion in limine is to ask for a ruling on evidence; a lawyer may ask a judge to specifically exclude evidence, or to rule that evidence is admissible and can be used in the trial.
A common reason to file a motion in limine is in an attempt to exclude evidence. An attorney can argue that evidence is not relevant or may be prejudicial in nature. Attorneys can also challenge the evidence on the grounds of admissibility; if the evidence was not collected or handled properly, for example, or if there are doubts about whether or not it is genuine, a motion in limine may be filed to request that the evidence be excluded.
Lawyers may use this as a peremptory technique. For example, if a defense attorney fears that an old entry on a client's criminal record will be brought up, she or he can file a motion in limine to ask that it not be admitted into evidence at any time during the trial. Likewise, an attorney may argue that a category of evidence, such as graphic photographs, which might be admitted into the trial should be excluded, providing grounds to support the argument.
Attorneys are not always successful when they file motions in limine. However, having laid out their arguments in the judge's chamber, they may also fight evidence challenged in a pretrial motion when it is introduced in court. Attorneys are also sharp-eyed when it comes to challenging evidence which appears to skirt the boundaries of an exclusion already decided upon by a judge. For example, if a judge rules that photos are so graphic in nature that they would prejudice the jury and a lawyer attempts to introduce sketches based on the photographs, the opposing counsel might challenge on the grounds that they should be excluded as agreed upon in chambers.