Definition of Terms Used in Ohio Criminal Cases

Arraignment

When you are charged with a crime, your first court appearance is almost always at an arraignment. The Judge will formerly ask you to respond to the charge by pleading guilty, not guilty or no contest (see the definition below). Many arraignments are done via video conferencing. Many Judges will not accept a no-contest plea.

Often the setting of bail or other conditions of release take place at the arraignment. Additionally, the court may address other issues such as protection orders (in domestic violence cases), vehicle impoundment and license suspension matters (especially in DUI Cases).

Bail

Money paid to the court to ensure that an accused person makes all the required court appearances. If you miss an appearance the money may be forfeited, a warrant issued for your arrest and/or additional criminal charges (Failure to Appear) may be filed.

Bonds

A guarantee given to a court by a bail bond seller to pay a defendant's bail should the defendant fail to appear in court. The bail bond seller charges the defendant (or whoever purchases the bond for the defendant) a nonrefundable premium (usually about 10% of the amount of bail) as a condition for making this guarantee.

Complaint

A legal document which formally charges the defendant with a crime. This initial charging document typically must state the identity of the person charged, the date/place of the violation and the statute or ordinance violated.

Continuance

A delay in a scheduled court proceeding. Either side can request a continuance when they want the court to postpone a deadline (or the date of a court appearance). Most often the judge will require the person seeking the delay to explain the circumstances and sign a time waiver (see definition below).

Defendant

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

Discovery

The procedures used by the defense and prosecution to find out before trial what information the other side has and intends to use if the trial takes place. As a general rule, the defense is entitled to discover more information than is the prosecution (because of the Fifth Amendment rule against mandatory self-incrimination). Discovery is regulated by highly defined court rules.

Felony

Felonies are serious crimes, usually punishable by a prison term of more than one year, as opposed to misdemeanors, which are less severe crimes. Felony convictions carry significant additional punishment, such as not being able to vote and not being allowed to own or possess a firearm.

Indictment

A grand jury's formal written accusation that a person committed a crime. The U.S. Constitution requires the government to obtain indictments for felony charges.

Miranda Warnings

A list of warnings that the police give to a suspect who is in custody before questioning the suspect if the police want to use the suspect's answers as evidence in a trial. The Miranda warnings are not applicable unless all of the above terms are met.

Misdemeanor

Crime less serious than a felony, punishable by no more than 1 year in jail, as opposed to prison.

No Contest Plea

A no contest plea is simply an admission of the facts alleged in the complaint. It only benefits you in a situation where someone might sue you for damages, such as personal injury or property damage. If you plead no contest, the judge, in all likelihood, will find you guilty unless the complaint itself is defective. If you suspect that your complaint is defective, consult an attorney immediately.

Plea

The defendant's formal answer to criminal charges. Typically, defendants enter one of the following pleas: guilty, not guilty or no contest. If you do not enter a plea or are unsure about which plea you want to enter, the judge may enter a not guilty plea for you.

Plea Bargaining

The negotiation between the defense and the prosecution relating to the settlement of a criminal charge.

Preliminary Hearing

A court proceeding in felony cases at the Municipal Court level during which the prosecution must present enough evidence for the judge to justify holding the defendant to answer for the crime(s), or else the case is dismissed. If the case is dismissed, charges may be refiled (without violating the double jeopardy law). In some courts, such as Portage County, the Preliminary Hearing is treated more like a Pretrial conference.

Pretrial Conference

A meeting between the prosecutor and the defense attorney before trial to identify undisputed facts, share witness lists or any other required reciprocal discovery and more importantly to try to settle the case (plea bargaining). A defendant usually does not speak directly to the prosecutor since anything a defendant says can be used against him/her in court.

Probable Cause

Reasonable basis or justification for certain actions by the police that occur early on in the criminal process. Probable cause is more than a mere hunch but not so much as to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt, the greater standard for conviction at trial.

Prosecutor

A lawyer who works for the government to bring and litigate criminal cases. Sometimes referred to as a D.A. (District Attorney).

Statute of Limitations

The legal time limit in which criminal charges can be filed against a defendant for a particular crime. A few crimes such as murder do not have a statute of limitations, and the statute of limitations for criminal acts against children typically is much longer than for crimes against adults. The level of the crime determines the applicable statute of limitations, although most are two years or longer.

Subpoena

A court order compelling someone to appear in court, sometimes with documents (deuces tecum).

Trial by Judge

The right of a defendant to have guilt/innocence determined by a judge. Often referred to as a bench trial. In most misdemeanor cases you will get a bench trial unless you formally request a jury trial in advance. In felony cases you automatically get a jury trial unless you waive it and request a bench trial instead.

Trial by Jury

The right to have your guilt/innocence determined by a jury. This right must be formally and properly requested in most misdemeanor cases, but is automatic in felony cases. For criminal cases the jury consists of 8 people on misdemeanor charges or 12 people on felony charges plus alternates. In a jury trial a guilty verdict must be unanimous.

Motion to Suppress

A document filed in a criminal proceeding, followed by a hearing, asking the judge to determine whether or not certain evidence such as statements, tests, physical items, etc... can be used against a defendant in the case. Also used to contest whether or not an officer had sufficient legal justification to stop, arrest or search the accused person.

Time Waiver

Permission given by the defendant for the court to schedule the case without regard to the statutory time limits for the setting of cases. All cases have to be brought to trial within strict time limits, depending on the level of the crime charged. It is usually beneficial to the defendant to waive this requirement, so as to allow time to obtain an attorney, schedule a pretrial conference, locate witnesses, prepare for trial, etc...

Warrant

An order from a judge or magistrate authorizing the police to arrest someone (arrest warrant) or to search a particular location for evidence (search warrant).