Legal lingo

A woman stopped in my office the other day wanting to know how I found out she had been charged with driving while impaired. She was insisting that since she had not gone to court yet, she hadn’t been charged with anything. She didn’t understand the difference between charged and convicted.

It is actually a common problem – one I run into frequently. Being charged is the beginning of a case, conviction comes toward the end.

Another thing I get asked often is if a case has gone to trial yet. People seem to think the trial comes a few days or weeks after the charges. This is pretty much never the norm.

Depending on the seriousness of the charges, the evidence, the legal questions raised and a million other details, a case can take months or years to go to trial. Most of them don’t go to trial at all. A large amount of cases end in a plea agreement, and there are different kinds of pleas.

Even if a case does go to trial, I have found that rarely do all the details come out. Often people want to know what REALLY happened, but most of the time that question goes unanswered. On TV, someone always seems to jump up and confess, but that isn’t reality. In all the trials I’ve attended, no one has ever stood on the stand and yelled, "You can’t handle the truth!" Generally an attorney doesn’t ask a question if he or she doesn’t already know the answer. The jury is asked to make their decision based on the evidence presented and by using common sense.

There can be multiple court appearances made by the defendant in the months leading up to a trial or plea agreement. Initial appearance, first appearance, bail hearings, bail reduction requests, omnibus hearings, contested omnibus hearings, motion hearings, pre-trial conferences…all of these can take place. In some cases, an attorney will request that a defendent be questioned by a mental health expert to determine if they are competent to participate in their own defense. That happens in a seperate location, then the expert makes a report for the court that is not public information since it is considered medical.

So where does my information come from? That depends on the information. Cases filed in Minnesota show up on MNCIS, a court documentation computer program. Iowa has a similar system, but it is less informative and rather awkward to use. Using the online systems takes a bit of legal lingo knowledge, and each district can file things a little differently.

When charges are filed againt an adult and a judge signs the complaint, it becomes open to the public. A copy of the complaint can be requested from a court adminstrator’s office. The immediate accessibility of the case file depends on the size of the district court and whether or not the file is sitting on a judge’s desk somewhere.

Court proceedings are generally open to the public unless they involve minors. A common misconception is that information regarding juvenile court cases is not open to the public. In Minnesota, if someone 16 or older is charged with a felony, the case is public. If a younger person is tried as an adult (the court has other words for it, but that is basically what it means) the proceedings can be open to the public.

And for everything I just explained, there can be exceptions.

Running the gauntlet of the court system can be tough, and those of us who follow cases regularly forget there was a time when the lingo made us say, "Huh?" on a regular basis.

Rules and laws vary from state to state, federal court has other issues, words and phrases used in adult court can be different from those used in a juvenile case, and each case brings its own set of peculiarities. After a person is convicted, there can be appeals, requests for post-conviction relief…whew! It can be a tough thing to follow. And it all takes time.

I found out long ago that the more I learn about the court system, the more I realize there is a lot I don’t know. Laws are constantly evolving, case law changes as trials are won and lost, statutes are revised as things are added or the needs of the people change.

Legal lingo can be a tricky business. As I was helping a coworker interpret some legal documents the other day, she commented on my remark that I wished I could learn a second language.

"You already know one," she said. "You speak legalese."

Well, I’m not completely fluent, but I try.