Entering the legal system can be confusing. Often, it can feel like those around you are speaking another language. Sometimes, they actually are since many legal terms have Latin roots. Other times, the words may be familiar to you, but they have different meanings in a legal context.
To help you decipher the legal code, here are some of the most commonly used legal terms that you may encounter when dealing with the criminal justice system.
Common Legal Terms in the Florida Criminal Justice System
In criminal law, an acquittal occurs when a defendant is found not guilty. After an acquittal, an individual cannot be tried again for the same offense.
An adjudication is a formal judgment made by the judge or court. A conviction is a type of adjudication.
Also known as a “withhold,” when an adjudication is withheld, probation may be imposed, but the judges choose not to make a formal conviction. This is more common with first-time misdemeanors.
An affidavit is a written statement of facts that has been made under oath and is meant to be submitted as evidence in court proceedings.
An appeal is the process for reviewing a court decision. In a criminal case, a defendant who is found guilty can use the appeals process to highlight problems with their trial. The appeals process is most commonly used to get a conviction thrown out or to secure a new trial.
An arraignment is the first official court proceeding after an arrest. During an arraignment, the accused is informed of the charges against him or her and asked to enter a plea.
If bail is required to secure a defendant’s release before their trial, they can use a bail bond that is a financial agreement with a bail bondsman. The bondsman charges the defendant a fee (generally a percentage of the total bail) and guarantees the payment of the bail with the court.
A crime that is punishable by the death penalty is considered a capital crime. Florida is one of 28 states that continues to use the death penalty.
Cash bond does not allow for partial payment or a bail bondsman. A cash bond is when a defendant must pay the full amount of bail in order to secure their temporary release before their trial.
A citation is a written order that is issued by a court or law enforcement stating that the person named in the citation must appear at a given time and place to handle a legal matter.
A concurrent sentence is when multiple sentences are allowed to be served simultaneously. For example, an individual with two 3-year sentences will serve a total of 3 years if their sentence is served concurrently.
Consecutive sentences are when punishments follow one another. For example, an individual who receives a 2-year and a 5-year sentence will serve 7 years if the sentence is to be served consecutively.
A conviction occurs when there is a guilty verdict.
Individuals who are unable to afford legal counsel will have a lawyer appointed to defend them. This lawyer is known as court-appointed counsel.
The defendant is the individual charged with a criminal offense.
For a first-time offender charged with misdemeanors, a diversion presents the opportunity to be removed from the criminal justice system by agreeing to enter a drug rehabilitation program or another similar type of program.
Extradition is the act of moving a person from the place of their arrest to the jurisdiction in which they are being charged with a crime.
A felony is a class of serious criminal offenses that carry a punishment of more than one year in prison or more, up to death.
A grand jury is a group of individuals who must consider evidence to determine whether a crime has been committed and whether charges should be drafted against an individual.
A hearing officer is a judicial official who can do some of the things that a judge can. They may also be known as a Magistrate.
A judgment is the official decision of the court.
Jurisdiction refers to the area (either geographical or topical) that a particular court has the power to hear. For example, some cases may fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal court, while others may fall under the jurisdiction of a state’s district court system.
A jury is a group of citizens (peers) who are tasked with hearing the evidence during a trial and reaching a verdict as to the guilt or innocence of the defendant.
Also known as a hearing officer, a Magistrate is a judicial officer who can complete some of the same actions as a judge.
A misdemeanor is a class of offenses that are deemed less serious. They are generally punishable by less than a year in jail, a fine, or some sort of suspension (like a 60-day suspension on a driver’s license).
A motion is a filing made in the court with a goal of achieving a certain end for the filer. For example, a motion to dismiss may be filed by the defense in an attempt to show that the case has no merit and should thus be dismissed by the court.
No True Bill
If a grand jury does not believe that charges can be brought in a particular case, they will mark the written indictment as “No True Bill.”
When the state chooses to drop a case before bringing charges, the state attorney issues “no bill.”
Nolo contendere is a Latin term that is used by defendants to say that they will not contest the charges against them. This is also called a plea of no contest, or just plain no contest.
When a prosecutor is dropping a case because they no longer have the evidence sufficient to prosecute, they will tell the judge, “Nolle Prosequi.”
In some cases, a defendant can opt for a trial with no jury. This is also known as a bench trial.
An opinion is a judge’s written explanation of the court’s decision. It may be the opinion of a single judge or the opinion of a majority of judges.
An order is a directive or mandate handed down by the court. It is generally given in writing by the judge.
An ordinance is legislation that has been passed by a municipal authority. It may cover criminal or noncriminal actions and violating it may lead to monetary fines or criminal prosecution.
A plea occurs during the arraignment process and is the defendant’s opportunity to respond to the charges against him. A defendant may enter a plea of not guilty, guilty, or nolo contendere.
A preliminary hearing is another term for an arraignment. This is when an individual charged with a crime has the opportunity to answer the charges against him. During a preliminary hearing, the court will also determine whether the accused will be held for trial, offered bail, or released on his own recognizance.
A pretrial conference is held before a case is tried. The judge and the attorneys for both sides meet to settle the case and to attempt to narrow down the issues which will be addressed at the trial.
Probable cause is the belief that a crime has occurred or is in progress. When an officer pulls over a vehicle for swerving and then executes a search, he does so because he believes that there is probable cause that the stopped individual is intoxicated or under the influence of an illegal substance. Probable cause is the basis for lawful searches, seizures, and arrests.
Probation is a supervised release that requires that an individual meet certain criteria, such as regular meetings with a probation officer, securing employment, and regular drug testing. If an individual breaks the terms of his probation, he may be returned to jail or prison.
The prosecutor is the state’s representative during a trial. In the criminal court system, they work with law enforcement to bring charges against individuals they believe have committed a crime.
A public defender is an attorney that is appointed by the court to represent a defendant who is unable to pay for his own defense attorney. Public defenders are employed by the government. To be eligible to receive a public defender, a defendant must be declared indigent.
To recuse oneself is to remove oneself from a situation. In the court system, this occurs when a judge, lawyer, or other official believes she cannot be objective or that their objectivity may be questioned because of particular ties to the case, victim, or defendant.
Released on Own Recognizance
When a defendant is released on their own recognizance, it means that he is being released without bail or posting bond. Generally, this occurs when there is little flight risk and the court does not believe the defendant will reoffend.
To remand an individual is to hold them in custody. A defendant may be detained during the entirety of his trial. Defendants may be remanded to custody in a jail or to home arrest.
When an individual is ordered to pay restitution, they are being asked to make amends for the acts they have been found guilty of. This may include community service or paying a fine.
To reverse a court decision is to undo it. This can occur when a higher court disagrees with a lower court hearing.
To revoke is to rescind or take back. In the criminal justice system, an individual may have their bail revoked if they do not comply with its terms. Documents may also be revoked, as can lower court decisions.
A sentence is the punishment handed down by the court for a particular offense.
A stay is a court order that effectively halts proceedings.
A subpoena is a court order that requires a witness to present themselves before a court of law to give testimony at a specified date and time.
Subpoena Duces Tecum
Similar to a subpoena, a subpoena duces tecum requires that a witness show up to court with certain documents or records.
A summons is similar to a subpoena except that it is used during civil matters to compel an individual to appear before the court.
A surety bond is purchased on behalf of the defendant in order to make bail. The defendant or his loved ones pay a percentage of the bail to the bondsman. The surety bond then allows for the defendant to be released on the condition that he or she makes all necessary court appearances.
A trial is the process by which two parties showcase the evidence they have in a legal dispute before a judge and/or jury with the goal of finding a resolution. In a criminal trial, the resolution may be an acquittal or a guilty verdict resulting in punishment.
Under criminal law, to vacate a motion, judgment, or court order means to cancel or nullify it.
A warrant is a legal document that is issued by a court or other authorized government body that gives permission for law enforcement to make an arrest, enact a search of a particular place, or carry out some action that is believed to be necessary for establishing justice.
A writ is a written order from the court or another legal authority that instructs an individual or organization to act or to not act.
Need Help Understanding Legalese? Give Us a Call
There are plenty of other legal terms that we haven’t covered here. The justice system is rife with them. From the statutes passed by the Florida legislature to the orders handed down from judges, it seems that the judicial system prides itself on confusing language.
If you need help deciphering communications from a court or a lawyer, give us a call. We always explain things clearly to our clients so they can make the best decisions for their future.