Criminal Court Terminology

Glossary of Terms

The following information explains some of the words you’ll encounter during the criminal court process.

Arraignment - A court appearance at which the defendant is formally charged and is asked to enter a plea of guilty, not guilty or no contest. In felony cases, an arraignment may immediately follow a preliminary hearing.

Bail – A sum of money required to be posted with the court by the defendant to guarantee future appearances in court. In some instances defendants are allowed to sign a bond for an amount of money set by the court to ensure future court appearances. Defendants in custody at the time bail is set will not be released from custody until they post the monetary amount required or sign the "signature bond" required by the court. Although the seriousness of a charge is considered, it is the probability of the defendant’s future appearances in court that is primarily considered. It is a condition of bail in all cases that defendants appear in court as required, commit no new crimes and not threaten or intimidate victims or witnesses. Violations of bond should be immediately reported to the law enforcement agency that investigated the originating crime.

Bound Over/Bind Over - At the completion of a preliminary hearing in a felony case, if the judge (or court commissioner) finds probable cause to believe that the defendant committed a felony, the case is then assigned to a circuit court judge for trial.

Complaint - A legal document prepared by the District Attorney’s (DA) Office based on police reports, witness statements, and gathered evidence. It lists the charges and the highlights of the evidence against the defendant. The complaint is filed in court and is a public document.

DA/ADA- District Attorney or Assistant District Attorney

Defendant – A person who has been formally charged with committing a crime.

Deferred Prosecution – The District Attorney’s office may decide not to issue criminal charges in all cases, or to suspend the criminal proceeding. The District Attorney my opt for an informal agreement with the defendant whereby the defendant agrees to meet certain conditions i.e. counseling, treatment, restitution, not committing other crimes for a specific period of time. If successful, the District Attorney may dismiss the charges or agree to reduce them to lesser offenses. It is at the sole discretion of the District Attorney to offer a deferred prosecution agreement to defendants.

Felony – A crime punishable by more than one year of incarceration.

Initial Appearance - A defendant’s first appearance in court. A commissioner or judge may read the charges, set bail. At this hearing, the judge/ commissioner will also order any "conditions of bond." Examples of bond conditions include: no contact with victims or witnesses, commit no further crimes, no alcohol or non-prescribed drugs.

Information- The document on which criminal felony charges are filed in circuit court after a preliminary hearing.

Misdemeanor – A crime punishable by up to one year of incarceration.

Motion Hearing - Oral or written requests regarding legal issues made by the lawyers before, during or after a trial asking the judge to issue rulings or orders affecting the case.

Plea - A person accused admits or denies the commission of a crime by pleading guilty or not guilty. The accused can be convicted on his/her plea of guilty or no contest to a charge.

Preliminary Hearing – An evidentiary hearing held in felony cases. The purpose of the hearing is to present evidence to the judge/commissioner sufficient to establish probable cause to believe that the defendant has committed a felony.

Pretrial Hearing or Conference – A meeting between the prosecutor and defendant (or defendant’s attorney), generally before the trial date to discuss trial issues or potential resolutions to the case.

Probable Cause - A judicial determination that there is sufficient evidence for the case to proceed to trial.

Restitution - An amount of money set by the court to be paid to the victim of a crime for property losses or injuries caused by the crime. Restitution in a criminal case cannot include "pain and/or suffering" awards. Victims must be prepared to show, if asked by a judge, documentation or proof of validity on any restitution claim.

Sentencing - The hearing at which the court imposes sentence. Sentencing follows a guilty/no contest plea, or a finding of guilt by a jury or judge.

Subpoena - A written court order requiring a person to appear in court to testify. The subpoena will state the date, time, and place the witness is to be, and the type of proceeding at which the witness must appear. Failure to appear pursuant to a subpoena may result in a warrant for the person’s arrest.

Warrant - A court order authorizing an arrest.