Definitions of Legal Terms
We list and try to explain below in plain language some of the terms that a person may encounter when dealing with a criminal matter for the first time. We intend these definitions for the lay person; please, do not attempt to substitute them for professional advice.
Arraignment: The court appearance at which the State formally notifies a criminal defendant of the charges against him, and at which the defendant first enters a plea of guilty, not guilty, or in some cases, nolo contendere. Some judges excuse a defendant from appearing at arraignment if represented by an attorney.
Articulable Suspicion: In order for a police officer to stop a person for investigation of criminal activity, the officer must have an "articulable suspicion" that the person has committed, or is committing, a crime. When challenged in court, the officer must be able to cite certain facts or circumstances that would give a reasonable officer the belief that a crime was being committed and that further investigation was warranted. Articulable suspicion relies on a lower burden of proof than that required to make an actual arrest (probable cause).
Bench Trial: A trial conducted in front of a judge without a jury. The judge decides all questions of the admissibility of evidence and the guilt or innocence of the defendant.
Calendar Call: A court date some time after arraignment, at which the court asks the State and the defendant about their readiness to proceed to trial. Some judges do not require the defendant to appear at calendar call if represented by an attorney.
Discovery: The process whereby each side learns more about a case, especially the evidence in the possession of the other side. In a criminal case, the evidence that each side must disclose depends on a number of factors, including the nature of the evidence and whether the opposing side asserts certain rights, usually by way of discovery motions.
District Attorney: The chief prosecutor of a Superior Court (the only level of Courts in Georgia that has jurisdiction over felony charges). His assistants are known as Assistant District Attorneys (ADAs).
Felony: Generally, any crime punishable by more than a year in prison and by more than a $1000 fine. A felony conviction can affect certain rights that a misdemeanor conviction usually does not, such as gun ownership, voting, and certain types of employment.
First Offender Treatment: Georgia law provides for people accused of certain crimes to avoid a conviction on their record. Typically an elligible person pleads "guilty" and receives a sentence. Upon the successful completion of the sentence, the State dismisses the charge, with no conviction entered on the person's criminal history. First offender is generally not available for DUI. Furthermore, First Offender treatment may not help the recipient with certain problems occuring later on, such as admission to the Bar or acquiring other professional licenses. First Offender treatment presents other dangers: a defendant should never request or accept First Offender treatment without thoroughly acquainting himself with the advantages and disadvantages through the advice of qualified counsel.
Grand Jury: Consists of up to 23 upstanding members of the community who meet in secret to consider whether the State has sufficient evidence to go forward with the prosecution of the offenses that the District Attorney alleges in his proposed indictment.
Habeas Corpus: Often referred to as "The Great Writ," a method by which an incarcerated person challenges the legitimacy of his imprisonment.
Indictment: The formal, written document by which the State charges a person with committing a felony. The District Attorney drafts the indictment and submits it to the grand jury. The grand jury then determines whether the State has sufficient evidence to go forward with the prosecution. The Grand Jury most often does what the District Attorney seeks. The State can charge some felonies by "accusation," rather than by indictment.
Jury Trial: In a jury trial, the judge decides legal questions, such as the admissibility of evidence, but the jurors decide the question of the guilt of the accused. In a misdemeanor case, the jury consists of six members; in a felony case, twelve jurors.
Misdemeanor: Generally, any crime punishable by not more than a year in prison, and not more than a $1000 fine. But Georgia treats certain misdemeanors as "high and aggravated," and for these crimes sentences can be as high as 12 months jail and $5000.
Motions: When one party asks the court to make a ruling or issue an order, he does so by making a motion, that is, a formal request to the court. In criminal cases, the defense often files motions before trial to compel discovery to force the prosecution to disclose certain evidence and to suppress evidence, in other words, to suppress evidence and to keep certain evidence from being presented at trial.
Motions Hearing: A court proceeding held before a judge only without a jury where both sides are given an opportunity to present evidence and to make arguments about certain questions. In criminal cases, motions hearings often revolve around the admission or suppression of certain evidence at trial.
Ninety Percent Offenses: For certain offenses, the Board of Pardons and Paroles does not permit the defendant to be paroled until he has served at least 90% of his original sentence. Currently the list of "90 percenters" includes: attempted rape, voluntary manslaughter, aggravated battery on a police officer, aggravated battery, child molestation, hijacking a motor vehicle, robbery, aggravated assault on a police officer, aggravated assault (with injury or weapon), enticing a child for indecent purposes, cruelty to children, feticide, incest, statutory rape, criminal attempt to murder, bus hijacking, vehicular homicide (while DUI or habitual violator), involuntary manslaughter, aggravated stalking, and residential burglary. [See also 100 percent offenses].
Nolo Contendere (No Contest): Those old enough may remember that former Vice-President Spiro Agnew pleaded nolo contendere to the charges that forced him to resign from office. The nolo plea allows a defendant to save face by not having to say "guilty" to charges that he probably could not beat. A defendant entering a Nolo Contendere or "no contest" plea does not admit guilt, but agrees not to fight the charge. In some cases, a nolo plea protects a defendant's rights. Generally, a nolo plea is no longer available to those charged with DUI in Georgia with very limited exceptions.
One Hundred Percent Offenses: In Georgia, a person cannot receive parole for certain offenses. Thus, he must actually serve 100 percent of his original sentence behind bars. These offenses include rape, aggravated sodomy, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sexual battery, armed robbery, or kidnapping committed on January 1, 1995, or later. The State imposes other restraints on parole eligibility for certain offenses. The Board of Pardons and Paroles website lays out some of them. Go to
Parole: The balance of a prison sentence that the Board of Pardons and Paroles allows a defendant to serve outside of jail. For certain offenses, the State does not offer parole.
Preponderance of Evidence: The standard of proof required to support a finding of civil liability. Think of it this way: If Bill and Bob sue each other over a car accident, the judge (or jury) should decide fault (liability) based upon whoever presents the most credible evidence that the other person caused the accident. If fifty-one percent of the trustworthy evidence supports a finding that Bill caused the accident, then Bob should win. Certain criminal and administrative hearings use this standard of proof, notably probation revocation.
Probable Cause: In order for an officer to place a person under arrest without a warrant, the officer must have "probable cause" to believe that a person has committed a crime. The issuance of a warrant also requires probable cause. Probable cause has been defined as facts and circumstances within one's knowledge sufficient in themselves to warrant a person of reasonable caution to believe that a crime has been committed. It may be based on hearsay, but must be more than a "mere hunch or suspicion."
Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: The level of proof required to convict a person of a crime. Reasonable doubt has been defined as a real doubt, based upon reason and common sense after careful and impartial consideration of all the evidence, or lack of evidence, in a case. It is not, however, proof beyond a shadow of a doubt, nor is it proof to a mathematical certainty.
Probation: That part of the sentence that the court orders the defendant to serve outside of jail. The defendant must observe certain terms and conditions of probation, and if he fails to do so, he may be ordered to serve the balance of the sentence in jail.
Similar Transactions: In criminal cases the prosecution often seeks to introduce evidence that the defendant has committed the same crime before. There are several procedural requirements to introduce such evidence of similar transactions. In some cases, most notably DUI, the courts give the prosecution much discretion to introduce prior arrests.
Solicitor: The chief prosecutor in the courts that handle only misdemeanor charges (generally, that's any court other than the Superior Courts) has the title Solicitor General. An Attorney that assissts him has the title Assistant Solicitor.
Suppression: Most commonly refers to a court's ruling that certain facts or evidence not be admitted at trial.