What should I know before going to court? For starters, know the lingo…

Arraignment: Court appearance where formal charges are read to the defendant and where the defendant is asked to enter a plea.

Arrest warrant: An order made on behalf of the state, based on a complaint, and signed by a judge authorizing police to arrest a person thought to have committed a crime. A person arrested on a warrant stays in jail until bail is posted or until released by order of the court.

Bail (or bond): Cash or security bond produced so a defendant may be released while the criminal matter is pending. Bail is used to ensure the defendant’s appearance in court at upcoming hearings. The court sets the bail amount depending on several factors, including seriousness of the charges and the likelihood that the defendant will attempt to flee prior to the required court appearances. Bail is forfeited if a defendant fails to appear in court.

Charge: Formal accusation that a person has committed a crime.

Circuit court: Court that holds felony trials.

Complaint: A preliminary charge made by the state that a person has committed a specified offense.

Continuance: A delay or postponement granted by the court in a legal proceeding. A case can be continued for good cause, such as illness or witness unavailability, or by agreement of the parties.

Defendant: Person formally charged with committing a crime.

Defense attorney: Lawyer who represents the defendant.

Deposition: Sworn testimony of a witness taken outside of court in the presence of the attorneys for the defense and prosecution. A deposition can be used at trial to impeach or discredit a witness’s testimony or can be read to a jury if the witness is unavailable.

Felony: A serious crime punishable by more than one year in prison.

Grand jury: A body of persons, selected and convened upon order of a judge, to inquire into and return indictments for crimes. The grand jury has the power to request that the circuit clerk issue subpoenas to bring people to testify before it.

Indictment: Formal charging document presented by the prosecuting attorney to a grand jury. The grand jury may then issue, or “return,” the indictment if it believes the accusation, if proved, would lead to a conviction.

Information: Formal charging document issued by a prosecuting attorney (with no grand jury involvement).

Jail: Local facility where persons in lawful custody are held. Defendants awaiting trial and defendants convicted of minor crimes usually are held in jail, not in prison. Any person who receives a prison term of one year or less will serve it in county jail. Those with terms longer than a year will go to state prison.

Misdemeanor: An offense less serious than a felony and punishable by a maximum one-year prison term.

Nolle prosequi: Voluntary dismissal of criminal charges by the state.

Plea: In criminal law, a defendant’s formal answer in court to the charge that he committed a crime. The four types of pleas are:

  • Not guilty: Complete denial of guilt. A trial will follow.
  • Not guilty by reason of insanity: Denial of guilt because of mental disease or defect excluding responsibility. A trial will follow in which the defendant’s mental fitness will be an issue. A defendant may plead both not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity simultaneously.
  • Guilty: Complete admission of guilt. The defendant, by pleading guilty, forfeits his right to trial
  • Alford plea: So-called following the case of North Carolina v. Alford. Similar to a guilty plea because while the defendant does not admit to all or some portions of the crime, he forgoes a trial anyway; also similar to a plea of nolo contendere (no contest).

Plea bargain/plea agreement: Agreement between the state and the defendant in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty under certain terms and conditions. To avoid going to trial and to reach a reasonable disposition, the defendant may plead guilty to a lesser offense or fewer charges. The victim has the right to know of the agreement and to comment. The judge must approve the agreement.

Persistent offender: Someone who has pleaded guilty to or has been found guilty of two or more felonies committed at different times. Persistent offenders may be sentenced to extended imprisonment.

Prior offender: Someone who has pleaded guilty to or has been found guilty of one felony.

Prison: State facilities where persons convicted of more serious crimes are held. Prisons are operated under the direction of the Missouri Department of Corrections.

Probable cause: Degree of proof needed to arrest.

Probation: Conditional freedom granted by the court to a convicted person, who usually is supervised by a probation officer. If a defendant violates the conditions of probation, probation may be revoked following a probation revocation hearing, and he will be taken into custody.

Prosecutor: Lawyer employed by the government to represent the general public’s interests in court proceedings against people accused of committing crimes.

Public defender: A lawyer employed by the state to represent defendants who can’t afford a private lawyer.

Restitution: Money paid by a defendant to reimburse victims for monetary losses incurred as a result of the crime. Ordered by the court as part of a sentence.

Subpoena: Court order telling you to appear in court — usually to testify or to produce documents or records. Failure to appear constitutes contempt of court.

Summons: Court order used to bring a person accused of a minor crime to court.

Truth in sentencing: Requires someone convicted of a dangerous felony to serve a minimum 85 percent of the sentence. Missouri law defines dangerous felonies as:

  • Arson, first degree
  • Assault, first degree
  • Assault of law enforcement officer, first degree
  • Attempted forcible rape if physical injury results● Domestic assault, first degree
  • Elder abuse, first degree
  • Forcible rape
  • Forcible sodomy
  • Kidnapping
  • Murder, second degree
  • Robbery, first degree
  • Statutory rape, first degree (when victim is younger than 12)
  • Statutory sodomy, first degree (when victim is younger than 12)
  • Certain child abuse cases

Victim impact statement: Statement given by a victim that explains how a crime has affected him and what sentence he thinks would be appropriate. The statement is the only time a victim will have to address the judge, who decides the fate of the accused. The statement is given to the prosecuting attorney, who forwards it to the judge after a verdict is reached and prior to sentencing.

Voir dire examination (or voir dire): Procedure in which the prosecuting and defense attorneys question prospective jurors to pick a jury