Glossary of legal terms

Accused: A person or entity accused of committing a crime.

Acquitted: The term used when a defendant is found not guilty by a judge or jury.

Affidavit: A sworn written statement made under oath or on affirmation before an authorized magistrate or officer.

Allegation: An assertion or statement of a party, which they intend to prove.

Appeal: The process by which a defendant requests that his/her conviction is reviewed by a higher court.

Arraignment: The court appearance at which the defendant is brought before a judge to be informed of the charges and enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. Subsequent court dates are set at the arraignment.

Arrest: The process of taking a person accused of a crime into custody (jail) by a law enforcement officer.

Bail/Bond: The amount of money a judge or magistrate commissioner determines is sufficient to release an accused offender and assure his/her attendance at subsequent court hearings. Bail can be declared forfeited by the presiding judge and a new arrest warrant issued if the defendant fails to appear for court.

Charges: Police can arrest a suspect on suspicion of committing a certain crime or crimes, but these are merely allegations and recommendations. A person is not formally charged with a crime until the grand jury hands up an indictment or the district attorney’s office files a bill of information accusing a person of committing specific crime(s).

Commissioner: An unelected magistrate appointed by the court to assist the elected magistrate judge on nights, weekends and holidays in establishing probable cause for an arrest, the pre-trial status of an accused offender and the initial determination of bail. Magistrates are bound to follow state law in the consideration of bail, and must consider the seriousness of charges, the criminal history and flight risk of the accused, and the potential danger the offender poses to the community, in addition to the accused’s ability to pay and other factors.

Criminal District Court: The building at Tulane Avenue and Broad Street in New Orleans where most felony criminal cases are adjudicated. Most misdemeanor cases and traffic offenses are handled elsewhere at the Municipal-Traffic Courthouse on Broad Avenue, adjacent to the New Orleans Police Department. Civil lawsuits and matters are heard at the Civil District Court adjacent to City Hall at Poydras Street and Loyola Avenue.

Defendant: A person or entity charged with committing a crime.

Defense attorney: An attorney employed by the defendant or the public defender’s office whose job is to represent the defendant’s interests in criminal proceedings.

Deposition: An interview of a witness set by court order, taken under oath and recorded by a court reporter.

Discovery: The process by which the prosecutor and defense attorney learn of the evidence that the other party will present at trial.

Disposition: The final result of a criminal case. This may be by a finding of guilty, not guilty, not guilty by reason of insanity, dismissal or a plea of no contest

Felony: A criminal charge which may be punishable by death or imprisonment at hard labor in the state Department of Corrections.

First appearance: A court hearing within 48 hours of a person’s arrest at which time a judge or magistrate commissioner determines if there is probable cause to detain the arrested person, decides if a bond amount should be set, and sets a date for the accused offender’s next court appearance.

Grand jury: A summoned group of Orleans Parish citizens that hears evidence of most serious crimes presented by prosecutors and determines if probable cause exists to charge the accused through an indictment.

Guilty plea: A statement by the defendant in court admitting that he or she committed the crime.

Guilty verdict: A decision after a trial, made by a jury or judge, finding that the prosecution has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime(s).

Indictment: A written accusation charging one or more persons of a crime.

Investigation: The process of collecting evidence by law enforcement officers or the prosecutor to determine if a crime has been committed.

Judge: The elected attorney who presides over court proceedings. At Criminal District Court, there are 12 elected judges presiding over individual sections of court, and an elected magistrate judge.

Jury: The group of citizens sworn to hear testimony and evidence at a trial and decide if the defendant is guilty or not guilty of committing the crime(s).

Misdemeanor: A criminal charge that is punishable by a fine or incarceration for a maximum of six months. Most misdemeanor cases are adjudicated at Municipal Court, some prosecuted by the district attorney’s office, others by the city attorney’s office.

Mistrial: A trial that ends by judge’s order when a rule of criminal procedure has been violated or if the jury deadlocks and cannot reach a verdict.

Motions: Written or oral requests by the prosecutor or defense attorney for the judge to take specific actions.

No contest (nolo contendere) : A plea that a defendant enters in court in which he or she does not contest the facts presented by the state and accepts conviction as though a guilty plea had been entered, but does not admit guilt.

Not guilty plea: A statement a defendant enters before the court at arraignment denying the commission of a crime or crimes.

Plea agreement: An arrangement agreed between the prosecutor and the defendant in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty or no contest to avoid a trial, normally in exchange for an agreed-upon sentence.

Preliminary hearing: A court hearing in which probable cause for the accused’s arrest is determined.

Personal recognizance: A judge or magistrate commissioner may allow a person accused of a crime to be released from custody without posting bond, believing that the defendant will return for future court dates. A “release on recognizance” order also is known as an ROR.

Probable cause: The amount of proof needed to determine that a crime occurred and the defendant likely committed the crime in order to proceed with prosecution in felony offenses only.

Restitution: The amount of money a judge orders the defendant to pay the victim as a condition of the defendant’s sentence for the victim’s out-of-pocket losses directly related to the crime.

Sentence: The punishment that the presiding judge imposes on a defendant found guilty.

Subpoena: A written court order requiring a person to appear in court at a specific date to give testimony.

Summons: A legal order requiring an individual to appear in court.

Suspended sentence: Convicted defendants sometimes receive sentences that include suspended time. For example, if John Doe is sentenced to 30 years in prison with all but 15 suspended, the sentencing judge has effectively decided that he should serve no more than 15 years in prison. However, if John Doe violates the terms of probation following his release from prison, the presiding judge can impose the previously suspended time on the defendant.

Trial: A court proceeding where testimony and evidence is presented to a judge or a jury to determine if the defendant is guilty or not of committing the crime(s).

Verdict: The final determination of a judge or jury.

Warrant: A legal order to a law enforcement agency to arrest the person named in the order.

Witness: A person who has seen or knows something about the crime