Criminal District Attorney - Definitions

A Criminal District Attorney is a statutorily created office that is legally bound to not only handle all criminal matters for the designated county but also all civil matters related to representation of the county, county officials, and all associated matters. The Texas Constitution provides for the office of County Attorney in each county.

However, the legislature may abolish the office of County Attorney by establishing a Criminal District Attorney for such a county. This legislative change took place in Comal County in 1997. Prior to this, Comal County had a County Attorney and a District Attorney.

The statutory duties of a Criminal District Attorney include the following:

  • Represent the State of Texas and victims of crimes in all criminal cases in the District Courts, County Courts-at-Law, and Justice Courts and in appeals therefrom.
  • Represent the best interests of our children in Child Protective Services cases.
  • Represent the victims of domestic abuse by obtaining protective orders against abusive family members.
  • Represent the State of Texas and victims of crimes in ensuring that justice is rendered for juveniles accused of criminal offenses.
  • Provide County Officials with written opinions or advice relating to the official duties of that official.
Definitions:

The terms and definitions on this page are relevant to criminal cases in the State of Texas, U.S.A., unless noted otherwise. Criminal laws & procedures in other states and countries may be very different.

DO NOT TAKE LEGAL ACTION SOLELY IN RELIANCE ON THE INFORMATION POSTED ON THIS PAGE!

This page provides general information that is intended, but not guaranteed, to be correct, complete & up-to-date. Do not rely, for legal advice, on information given on this page or any externally referenced Internet sites. If you need legal advice upon which you intend to rely in the course of your legal affairs, consult a competent attorney in your area.

A

ACQUITTAL

Criminal defendant being found "not guilty" of the crime. An acquittal is not a declaration of the accused "innocence"; it is a verdict that a Prosecutor failed to prove the accused guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

ADJOURNMENT

Postponing or rescheduling a case or court session until another date or time.

ADJUDICATION

Generally, a final judicial determination of a case. In juvenile delinquency cases, it is the equivalent of a 'conviction' in adult criminal cases, when the court formally takes jurisdiction of the minor due to a plea or a trial verdict.

ADULT

A person who is no longer deemed to be a minor. In Texas, a person becomes an adult for criminal cases when they turn 17. In some instances a person younger than the age of 17 may be certified to stand trial as an adult in a criminal action.

ADVERSARY PROCEEDING

Actions contested by opposing parties.

AFFIANT

A person who makes out an affidavit.

AFFIDAVIT

Written statement of fact that is verified by oath or affirmation before a notary public or officer having authority to administer oaths. (Affidavits are not admissible in criminal trials or hearings in lieu of testimony because the opposing party has no opportunity to cross-examine the affiant.)

AFFIRMED

In the practice of the appellate courts, when a lower court order is declared valid and will stand as rendered in the lower court.

AMICUS BRIEF

A brief filed by an amicus ("friend of the court") in support of a party in a lawsuit or pending appeal. The court may have to give the amicus permission to file the brief, and may limit the issues.

AMICUS CURIAE

"Friend of the Court" (Latin) A party who volunteers information on some aspect of a case or law to assist the court in its deliberation.

ANSWER

A party's written response to a legal pleading, such as a motion or brief.

APPEAL

Request to a supervisory court, usually composed of a panel of judges, to change the legal ruling of a lower court. To make such a request is "to appeal" or "to take an appeal." One who appeals is called the Appellant; the opposing party is the Appellee.

APPELLATE RECORD

The record sent by the trial court to the appellate court of what happened at the trial court. This includes a copy of the docket, the case file (court documents) and transcripts of court hearings.

APPEARANCE

A document filed with the court, and provided to other parties, by an attorney advising that the attorney is representing a specific individual.

APPELLANT

The party appealing a decision or judgment to a higher court. In a criminal matter this usually the defendant.

APPELLATE COURT

A court that reviews a lower court's decisions. County Courts at Law is the appellate court for Justice of the Peace or Municipal court cases. The Third Court of Appeals in Austin, Texas is the appellate court for County Court at Law and District Court cases from Comal County. The Texas Supreme Court is the appellate court for Court of Appeals decisions involving civil matters and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is the appellate court for Court of Appeals decisions in criminal cases.

APPELLEE

The party responding to an appeal filed in a higher court. In a criminal matter this is usually the State of Texas by and through the District Attorney's office.

ARRAIGNMENT

Criminal defendant's first appearance before a judge. The primary purpose is to inform the defendant of the charge(s) he is facing. The judge may also determine an appropriate bail and decide on a request for court-appointed counsel.

ARREST

To take into custody by legal authority.

ARREST WARRANT

An order issued by a judge or magistrate to a peace officer requiring the arrest of a named person.

ASSISTANT DISTRICT ATTORNEY

Lawyer hired by the elected District Attorney to prosecute cases within that county as representatives of the People of the State of Texas.

ATTORNEY

A lawyer. A person authorized to practice law in a state to represent the legal interests of another person.

B

BAIL

Bond money paid to a court by or on behalf of a criminal defendant as security that, when released from jail, the defendant will appear at all future hearings. The court can also set conditions of release (i.e., no contact with the victim, no alcohol consumption, etc.) If another person posts the bail money, then that third party vouches that the defendant will appear at future court dates. Bail can be forfeited if the defendant fails to appear or violates release conditions.

BAILIFF

A court employee who assists the judge in maintaining order in the courthouse, and who is responsible for the custody of a jury.

BENCH TRIAL

Trial held before a judge and without a jury. The judge determines the facts.

BOND / BAIL BOND

A promise or contract to do or perform a specified act, or pay a penalty for failure to perform. This is usually guaranteed by a 'surety', who promises to pay if the 'principal' defaults, or by paying a cash bond.

In criminal cases, 'bond' means the same thing as 'bail': a financial obligation signed by the accused or a surety intended to guarantee the defendant's future appearances in court. The amount of the bond is set by a judge or magistrate. The bond can include conditions of release (i.e., no contact with the victim, no alcohol consumption, etc.) Factors influencing the amount of bond set include the seriousness of the charge, the defendant's criminal history, and the defendant's ties to the community.

BRIEF

Written arguments submitted by the lawyers for each side in a case explaining facts and/or law supporting their respective positions (why the court should decide the case or a particular part of a case in favor of that lawyer's client).

C

CAPITAL OFFENSE

Crime punishable by death.

CHALLENGES (Jury Selection)

Method for striking prospective jurors. The Michigan Court Rules allow two types of juror challenges: for cause (unlimited number, the grounds for which must fit reasons specified in the Texas Court Rules) and peremptory (limited number depending on the severity of the crime on trial, the grounds for which do not have to be specified). Appropriate challenges for cause exist when the juror is shown to be biased for or against a party, is related to a trial participant, etc. No reason need be announced for a peremptory challenge, although a purely racially-based challenge is not permitted.

A party can also "challenge the array", which questions the qualifications of the entire jury array (panel) summoned for jury duty (e.g., racial discrimination).

CHAMBERS

Judge's office.

CHARGE TO THE JURY

A judge's instructions to a jury. Information on the laws relating to the case, definitions of legal terms, and explanations of procedures relevant to the jury's duties.

CHILD PROTECTIVE PROCEEDINGS

Proceedings in the family division of the district court regarding children under age 18 who are abused or neglected.

CHILDREN'S PROTECTIVE SERVICES (CPS)

A division in the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Children's Protective Services workers investigate reports of suspected child abuse or neglect. They can also provide services to families in an effort to prevent abuse or neglect.

CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE

Indirect evidence that implies something occurred but does not directly prove it. Evidence that suggests something by implication.

Example: circumstantial evidence of embezzlement includes proof that the defendant-employee had access to missing money and made several big-ticket purchases in cash around the time of the alleged embezzlement.

The law does not distinguish between the weight to be given to direct and circumstantial evidence. Jurors are instructed that they may give more weight to circumstantial evidence than direct evidence if they find the circumstantial evidence to be more credible.

[See also direct evidence.]

CIVIL CASE

Case between private litigants concerning personal wrongs, generally where the losing party must compensate the prevailing party with money or other property. Examples of civil cases include divorces, personal injury, landlord-tenant, small claims and contract or property disputes. A civil plaintiff may be also be asking the court to tell the defendant to stop some behavior or to do a specific thing. Both the plaintiff and the defendant may be represented by an attorney, unless the case is filed as a small claims case.

CODE

A grouping of statutes, relating to a particular subject matter and arranged in classified order. Usually created by enactment of a new statute by the legislature embodying all the old statutes relating to the subject and including changes necessitated by court decisions. In some cases, the change would result in a new statutory concept. Examples: the Juvenile Code, Mental Health Code, etc.

CO-DEFENDANT

One who participates in the commission of a crime, along with another person.

COMMON LAW

Body of legal principles which derives its authority solely from usages, customs or court decisions since ancient times, or from the judgments and decrees of courts recognizing, affirming, and enforcing such usages and customs, particularly the ancient unwritten law of England. Common law is distinguished from "statutory law", which is enacted by a legislative body such as Congress or a state legislature. Common law is the basis for the legal systems in every state except Louisiana.

CONCURRENT SENTENCE

Upon conviction for multiple crimes, a criminal sentence served at the same time as another criminal sentence, rather than one after the other. The person is release at the expiration of the longest term specified.

See also consecutive sentence.

CONFESSION

A statement by person, either oral or written, admitting that he or she committed a certain offense.

CONSECUTIVE SENTENCE

Upon conviction for multiple crimes, criminal sentences that must be served one after the other, rather than at the same time. Consecutive sentences may only be imposed if there is specific statutory authority to do so. In some circumstances, consecutive sentences may be imposed within the judge's discretion (e.g., when a person is convicted of a new offense committed while on parole status).

See also concurrent sentence.

CONVICTION

Judge or jury's decision that the accused person is guilty of the crime.

COUNSEL

One who gives advice, especially legal advice.

See Attorney.

COURT

Government entity authorized to resolve legal disputes. Judges sometimes use "court" to refer to themselves in the third person, as in "the court has read the briefs." Courts and judges are part of the Judicial Branch of government.

COURT-APPOINTED ATTORNEY

Legal counsel assigned by the court to represent an indigent criminal defendant. A court-appointed attorney is not necessarily a "free" attorney; the court can order that some or all of the attorney's bill be reimbursed.

See also Guardian ad Litem.

COURT OF APPEALS

"Intermediate" appellate court between the Texas Supreme Court or the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the Texas trial courts. Final decisions from a County Court at Law or District Court hearing may be appealed to the Court of Appeals.

Court of Appeals judges are elected for 6-year terms.

Visit the Texas Court of Appeals web site here.

COURT REPORTER

Person who makes a word-for-word record (either through stenography/short-hand or audio/video recording) of what is said in a court proceeding and can produce a transcript of the proceedings upon request. Michigan court reporters or recorders must be trained and certified.

CRIME

An act in violation of criminal law: an offense against the State of Texas.

CRIMINAL CASE

Charge filed by a prosecutor against a defendant concerning violation of a criminal law. The act of violating a criminal law is an offense against the community, not a private wrong. Examples of criminal cases include theft, and murder.

CROSS EXAMINATION

Questioning of a witness by a party other than the one who called that witness to the witness stand, to test the truthfulness of the witness's testimony, to further develop it or to otherwise expand on it.

D

DEFENDANT

Person who has been formally charged with committing a crime.

DEFENSE ATTORNEY

The attorney representing the accused (defendant).

DELIBERATIONS

Discussions held by the jury, after all evidence has been presented, to decide the outcome of a case.

DEPOSITION

Oral statement made before an officer authorized by law to administer oaths. Such statements are used in civil cases to examine potential witnesses, to obtain discovery, or to be used later in trial. Depositions are generally not used in criminal cases.

DIRECT EVIDENCE

Evidence that stands on its own to prove an alleged fact, such as testimony by a teller that she saw the defendant pointing a gun at her and heard him demand money during a bank robbery.

See also circumstantial evidence.

DIRECT EXAMINATION

Questioning of a witness by the party who first called the witness to the stand.

DOCKET / CASE DOCKET

A written list of all important acts done in court in the conduct of an individual case, from beginning to end. This term is also commonly, but improperly, applied to the case calendar (a list of cases set for a hearing by a court on a specific day).

DOCKET NUMBER

Number assigned by the court's clerk to identify each case.

DUE PROCESS (of Law)

The fundamental procedural rules that guarantee "fair play" in the conduct of legal proceedings (e.g., the right to notice and a hearing, the right to an impartial judge and jury, the right to present evidence on one's own behalf, the right to confront one's accuser, the right to be represented by counsel, etc.).

E

EVIDENCE

Information presented in testimony, documents, physical objects or other things that are used to prove or disprove facts relevant to a case.

See also direct evidence, circumstantial evidence, and corroborating evidence.

EX-PARTE

Latin term that means "by or for one party."

Refers to situations in which only one party (and not the adversary) appears before a judge. Such meetings are often forbien.

EX-PARTE ORDER

Order entered without giving the party affected by the order an opportunity to be heard in court before the order is issued. An emergency order used when one party could be irreparably harmed by waiting for a hearing date. The orders are generally short-term, and hearings are scheduled soon to give the other party a chance to be heard.

EXTRADITE / EXTRADITION

The formal process of delivering a person found in one state (or nation) to authorities in another state (or nation) where that person has been accused or convicted of a crime.

F

FELONY

Crime carrying more than one year possible incarceration, unless it is specified as a misdemeanor. Felonies are tried in District Court.

FORFEITURE

Real or personal property to which a person loses his right of possession due to the commission of a crime or by way of an assessed penalty. A forfeiture may be either administrative or judicial.

G

GOOD TIME

Reduction in time served in county jails or in state prison as a reward for good behavior.

GRAND JURY

Group of citizens convened in a criminal case to consider the prosecutor's evidence and determine whether probable cause exists to prosecute a suspect for a felony.

GUARDIAN

A person with the legal duty and power to care for the person of another individual who is: a) under age 18; or, b) a legally incapacitated person. A guardian may be appointed by a court or designated in a will.

GUARDIAN AD LITEM

Person appointed by the court to protect the legal interests of an infant or an incompetent adult, or a missing person who is involved in a court case. The court will appoint a guardian ad litem in cases of juvenile abuse or neglect. The "GAL" may be an attorney.

H

HABEAS CORPUS

Writ (order) to bring a person before a court. In its most common usage, the writ directs a warden or jailer to bring a prisoner or person detained so that the court may determine whether such person is lawfully confined. It may also be used to bring a person in custody before the court to give testimony, or to be prosecuted.

HEARSAY

Second-hand evidence not arising from personal knowledge of the witness but generally from repetition of what the witness has heard others say.

Statement made outside of court (i.e., not from the witness stand at the present proceeding) that is offered as evidence to prove that the statement was true, not merely that the statement was made. Second-hand evidence not arising from personal knowledge of a witness, but generally from repeating what the witness heard others say outside the courtroom.

Hearsay is generally inadmissible, but dozens of long-established exceptions have been approved; the exceptions are based on circumstances where the out-of-court statements carry a likelihood of trustworthiness (e.g., deathbed statements, self-incriminating statements, statements made to doctors about medical conditions, excited utterances, etc.).

HUNG JURY

A criminal jury that cannot reach a unanimous verdict.

I

IMMUNITY

A court-approved agreement by a prosecutor to not prosecute a person, in return for providing criminal evidence against another person or party.

IMPEACHMENT

Process of calling something into question, as in "impeaching the testimony of a witness." Impeachment generally challenges a witness' credibility (believability) with evidence of bias, prior inconsistent statements, etc.

IN CAMERA

In chambers; in private. A hearing or inspection of documents that takes place outside the presence of the jury and public, usually in a judge's office.

INDICTMENT

Formal accusation of a felony, issued by a grand jury after considering evidence presented by a prosecutor.

INFORMATION

Document on which criminal misdemeanor charges are filed in County Courts at Law or after a waiver of indictment in a felony case.

INJUNCTION

Order of the court prohibiting (or compelling) the performance of a specific act to prevent irreparable damage or injury.

J

JUDGE

Government official with authority to decide lawsuits brought before courts.

JURISDICTION

Legal authority of a court to hear and decide a case before it, which depends on the type of case and how closely connected the parties are to the county where the court is located.

The geographic area over which the authority to interpret and apply the law extends (e.g., the court's authority to decide cases, the prosecutor's authority to issue criminal charges, etc.). (See also venue.)

In delinquency and abuse/neglect cases, the court's authority to enter orders affecting a youth and his/her parents or household.

JURY

Persons selected according to law and sworn to inquire into and declare a verdict on matters of fact.

Misdemeanor cases use 6-person juries. Felony cases use 12-person juries.

JUVENILE

Youth under the age of 17.

K

L

LAWYER

An attorney. A person authorized to practice law in a state to represent the legal interests of another person.

LEADING QUESTION

A question that instructs a witness how to answer, or suggests which answer is desired. These questions are usually prohibited on direct examination.

M

MAGISTRATE

Used generally, this title means a judge. In Texas, it can also be a quasi-judicial officer who has the authority to set bail.

MIRANDA WARNING

A warning given by police before custodial interrogation. It advises the person that he does not have to talk to police, and his silence will not be held against him, and his right to legal counsel before talking to police.

Refers to a US Supreme Court decision: Miranda v Arizona, 384 US 436 (1966).

MISDEMEANOR

Crime carrying maximum jail time of one year or less. 

MISTRIAL

An erroneous or invalid trial; a trial declared by a judge to be defective and void, generally due to prejudicial error in the proceedings or a "hung jury" (a jury that could not agree upon a verdict).

N

NO CONTEST PLEA

A plea in which the facts supporting the crime's elements come from a source other than the defendant's own words in court (generally, from police investigation reports, witnesses statements, photographs, etc.). A "nolo" plea is used when the defendant cannot recall his criminal actions (sometimes due to intoxication), or his verbal plea from a traditional guilty plea would be used in a potential civil law suit. Regardless, the plea is treated the same as a guilty plea, and the defendant is treated by a sentencing judge the same as if he was convicted via a guilty plea or trial verdict.

NOLO CONTENDERE

Latin term meaning "I will not contest it.". See No Contest Plea.

O

OBJECTION

Taking exception to a statement or procedure in trial. Used to call the court's attention to improper evidence or procedure.

Objection Overruled - a judge's rejection of an objection as invalid.

Objection Sustained - support or agree with an objection. Used by the judge to indicate agreement with a motion or request.

ORDER

Decision of a court made in writing.

OVERRULE

A judge's decision to not allow an objection to prevail. Also, a decision by a higher court that a lower court's decision was in error.

See also sustain.

P

PAROLE

Conditional release from prison of a convict before the expiration of a felony sentence. The parolee (the released person) need not serve the remainder of his incarceration, unless he violates terms of his release. The parolee is under the supervision of a state parole officer during the parole period.

PERJURY

Knowingly making a material false statement about a material fact while under oath to tell the truth.

PLEA

Defendant's response to a criminal charge (guilty, not guilty or nolo contendere).

PLEA AGREEMENT / BARGAIN

A negotiated agreement between the Prosecutor and the defense counsel for the defendant to plead guilty or no-contest under certain terms and conditions. The agreement could include the defendant pleading to all pending charges with a sentence agreement, or pleading to less than all of his pending charges, or pleading to a less serious charge, or pleading guilty to one or more pending charges in exchange for dismissal of other unrelated charges. All plea agreements must be approved by the judge. Plea agreements are a means of arriving at a reasonable disposition without the necessity of a trial.

POLLING THE JURY

Asking jurors individually, after their verdict has been announced, whether they agreed (and still agree) with announced verdict. This occurs in the courtroom before the judge discharges the jury.

PRECEDENT

Court decision in an earlier case with facts and law similar to a dispute currently before a court. Precedent will ordinarily govern the decision of a later similar case, unless a party can show that it was wrongly decided or that it differed in some significant way.

PROBATION

Discretionary sentencing option for most misdemeanor and felony convictions where the defendant avoids some/all incarceration, and is released back into the community under the supervision of a probation officer for a specific time period, with rules to follow. Some rules are standard (i.e., to not violate any more laws), and others are specific to the defendant or crime (i.e., alcohol counseling when convicted of driving while intoxicated). If the defendant violates any term of probation, the assigned probation officer (or the Prosecutor) can ask the sentencing judge to impose aitional penalties after a probation violation hearing.

PROBATION ORDER

An official written directive from a court ordering that a criminal defendant is sentenced to a term of probation. The document is signed by the judge and the defendant. It includes all legal conditions (both standard and special conditions) with which the defendant must comply during probation, including payment of fines, costs, restitution, etc.

PRO BONO

Legal services provided to a client free of charge.

PRO PER / PRO SE

Person who represents himself/herself in court without an attorney. The term comes from the Latin phrase in propria persona.

Q

QUASH

Nullify, void or declare invalid. To overthrow or vacate.

R

REASONABLE DOUBT

Texas Courts no longer allow the State or a defendant to proffer a definition of reasonable doubt to a jury.  In the past it had been defined as a doubt based on reason and common sense after a careful and impartial consideration of all the evidence in the case. It is the kind of doubt that would make a reasonable person hesitate to act in the most important of his own affairs.

RELEVANCE

Evidence having any tendency to make the existence of a fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more or less probable than it would be without the evidence. Texas Rules of Evidence 401.

REMAND

To send a case back to the court from which it came for further proceedings. This typically happens when an appellate court sends a case back to a lower court with instructions on further proceedings.

RESTITUTION

Payments ordered by the judge to repay victims for economic losses incurred as the result of the crime (property loss or injuries). Does not include compensation for pain and suffering, emotional distress or other non-economic damages that can result in compensation through a civil law suit.

 

S

SEARCH WARRANT

Written order from a judge or magistrate that an officer may search a specific location for specified items which, if found, can be seized by the government for possible use in court as evidence. Search warrants are issued upon a showing of probable cause that the items are in the place to be searched, and are evidence of a crime.

SENTENCE

Punishment ordered by a court for a defendant convicted of a crime.

SEQUESTER / SEQUESTRATION

To separate. A procedure to shelter a trial participant from outside influences.

The term most frequently applies to witnesses, and prevents them from watching court proceedings and testimony (or talking outside the courtroom to other witnesses about the case) before they actually testify. In very rare cases, a jury can be sequestered during part or all of a trial.

SIDEBAR

Conference between the judge and lawyers held out of earshot of the jury and spectators.

STANDING

Party's right to make a legal claim, or to seek judicial enforcement of a right or duty.

STARE DECISIS

Doctrine that once a principle of law has been determined to be applicable to certain facts, that principle will be followed in future cases involving substantially identical facts.

STATE BAR OF TEXAS

An association for attorneys licensed to practice law in Texas. All attorneys, including prosecutors, must be a member of the State Bar in order to practice law in Texas.

Visit the State Bar of Texas web site here.

STATUTE

Law passed by a legislature.

SUBPOENA

Court order requiring a person to appear in court and give testimony as a witness, and/or to produce documents. An employer cannot act upon or threaten to discharge or discipline a witness for missing work to testify in court when subpoenaed.

SUBPOENA DUCES TECUM

Court order to produce documents or records.

SUSTAIN

A judge's decision to allow an objection or motion to prevail.

See also overrule.

T

TESTIMONY

Evidence presented orally and under oath by witnesses during trials or other court proceedings.

TRANSCRIPT

Official record of the testimony taken in a trial or hearing. A written, word-for-word (verbatim) record of what was said.

U

V

VACATE

To set aside. Example: a court may vacate an earlier order.

VENUE

Geographic location (e.g., city or county) where an event occurred. A "change of venue" happens when a case is moved to a court in another county or to a court having other jurisdictional powers ... generally because the case should have been filed there originally, or for the convenience of the parties/witnesses, or because a fair trial cannot be had in the original court's location.

VERDICT

Decision of a jury or a judge on the issues submitted to the court for determination.

VICTIM

Person or entity who suffers direct or threatened physical, financial, or emotional harm as a result of the commission of a crime.

VOIR DIRE

Process of jury selection, generally involving the judge and attorneys asking potential jurors about their experiences and beliefs. The purpose is to determine if the jurors are appropriate for sitting on the case at hand, particularly their willingness to decide the case only on the evidence presented in court. This French term means "to speak the truth".

W

WAIVER

Intentionally giving up a right. Example: a defendant waiving his right to remain silent to be interviewed by police.

WARRANT

Court order authorizing an arrest or search.

WITNESS

Person who comes to court (sometimes by subpoena) and swears under oath to give truthful evidence about information he/she has seen, heard or otherwise experienced.

 

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