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Circuit Court District Division - Criminal - Basic Definitions

After reviewing the information on these pages, if you need further assistance please contact the Trial Court Information Center:
1-855-212-1234 for calls from US or Canada (Calls from outside US or Canada call 603-415-0162)

This page is provided for educational purposes only. It is not intended to serve as legal advice or to provide a complete statement of the law. New Hampshire statutes may be reviewed here, while New Hampshire Supreme Court Opinions are located on the Court’s website.


Criminal Case Process Checklist

What to do before court

What to bring

What to do when you arrive


Basic Definitions

DEFENDANT - the Defendant is the person who is charged with an offense.

PROSECUTOR - the prosecutor is the person or persons who represent the State. The prosecutor may be an attorney or a police officer. The prosecutor may not be the officer who made the arrest.

BAIL COMMISSIONER - a bail commissioner is a person who is appointed by the court and who works for the court. He/she is actually an extension of the court. Bail commissioners set bail for persons charged with offenses. They are statutorily entitled to a fee of $40.00 for doing so. This is commonly referred to in court as the "bail fee."

BAIL BONDSMAN - a bail bondsman is an individual who provides surety bonds to persons who are charged with offenses who must have a corporate surety bond to be released. Bail bondsmen do not work for the court and are not the same as bail commissioners.

VIOLATION - a violation is an offense which is not "criminal" in nature. In other words, while it may involve conduct which is illegal and may be charged, it is not classified as a "crime" and, for that reason, a person who is charged with a violation cannot go to jail if convicted.

MISDEMEANOR - a misdemeanor is a crime and a person who is convicted of a misdemeanor may be sentenced to jail depending upon the class of misdemeanor charged.

CLASS A - a person who is charged with a class A misdemeanor may be sentenced to jail upon conviction. In addition, a fine and probation may be imposed. For this reason, a person who is charged with a class A misdemeanor is entitled to apply for a court appointed lawyer.

CLASS B - a person who is charged with a class B misdemeanor may not be sentenced to jail upon conviction, although a fine and probation may be imposed. For this reason, a person who is charged with a class B misdemeanor may not apply for a court appointed lawyer.

FELONY - a felony is a crime and, like misdemeanors, felonies are broken down into class A felonies and class B felonies. A person convicted of a felony may be sentenced, in addition to a fine and probation, to the New Hampshire State Prison. District Courts, however, do not have jurisdiction to hear felony cases. A person who is charged with a felony may appear for an arraignment in District Court and for a hearing called a "Probable Cause" hearing but the District Court cannot resolve the case beyond that. A person charged with a felony of any kind is entitled to apply for a court appointed lawyer.

COMPLAINT - the complaint is the document filed by the police with the court that tells everyone involved in the case what the charge(s) is/are. It is the formal notice to the court and the defendant.

BAIL - bail is set by the Judge or by a bail commissioner. Bail is an amount of money, either cash or personal recognizance, which is designed to ensure a defendant's appearance in court as well as ensure the safety of the public and the defendant. In addition to an amount of money, the court/bail commissioner may also set conditions of bail that the defendant must follow to remain out of jail. There are different types of bail:

PERSONAL RECOGNIZANCE - a person released on personal recognizance bail is released upon his/her "promise" to appear in court and follow any conditions of bail. No money is required in order to be released.

CASH BAIL - a person who is required to post cash bail must put up money, either cash or money order/bank check, to be released. If the funds are not posted with the court, the person may not leave and will be jailed.

CORPORATE SURETY - a corporate surety is obtained through a bail bondsmen who provides, for a fee which may be nonrefundable, a bond guaranteeing payment to the court of a certain amount of money should the defendant fail to appear when necessary. The agreement between the defendant and the bondsman is done outside of court.

ARRAIGNMENT - the arraignment is generally the first appearance in court for people who are charged with a criminal offense. It is the day when the defendant is formally notified of the charge(s) filed in the court and, with the exception of felony offenses*, is the day when the Judge will ask the defendant for a plea: guilty, not guilty or nolo contendere.

NOT GUILTY - a person who pleads not guilty is denying that he/she committed the offense and is asking the case to proceed to trial.

GUILTY - a person who pleads guilty is admitting to the offense.

NOLO CONTENDERE - a person who pleads nolo contendere (often referred to as "nolo" or "no contest") is neither admitting nor denying that the offense was committed. The person is simply choosing not to challenge the charge.

* NOTE - the District Court does not have the authority to resolve felony offenses and therefore the Judge will not ask a person charged with a felony for a plea. Even if the person wishes to plead guilty, the District Court cannot accept the plea because it cannot resolve the case.

COURT APPOINTED COUNSEL - persons charged with class A misdemeanors or felonies, offenses which could result in jail time, may apply for a court appointed lawyer. While court appointed lawyers are not free, the fee is minimal. Court appointed lawyers may be public defenders, contract attorneys, or other private attorneys who have agreed to take court-appointed cases. A person who is requesting court appointed counsel will be required to fill out a financial affidavit because, not only must the person be charged with a "jailable" offense but also be "indigent" as defined by New Hampshire law.

ELEMENT - every offense has certain "elements" or pieces which the State (prosecutor) must prove beyond a reasonable doubt. The Judge will go over with you the elements of each charge pending against you.

What to do before court »


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