Vail Law: Defining ‘mittimus’ in the legal world (column) |

Vail Law: Defining ‘mittimus’ in the legal world (column)

Rohn K. Robbins
Vail Law

“Mittimus,” she said.

“Say what?”

She lifted up her chin, defiance in her clear blue eyes and repeated with authority, “I’ll have two scones and coffee … with some mittimus sauce, please.”

Um … no, not exactly.

“You might be asking, does a ‘gaoler’ wear a hockey sweater and defend the net? No, not so much. You’ve understandably been affected with irritable vowel syndrome and have your vowels mixed up. ‘A’ before ‘o,’ not ‘o’ before ‘a.’ ‘Gaoler’ is simply a musty term that means a jailer, the word “goal” being a rather old one for a jail.”

Mittimus is not a word you hear every day. Or, I’ll wager, unless you live in the world of law enforcement or the criminal courts, it may not be a word you have ever heard before at all. And, if you keep your nose clean, it’s a word you’re not likely to hear again.

If not bechamel, tartar or some other tasty thing to spread on your orange scone, what is this little beast?

As this is a legal column, and considering the bread crumbs I left for you above, you might deduce that mittimus is a legal term.

In English practice, from which our own system of law derives, “mittimus” is “a writ enclosing a record sent to be tried in a county palatine.” It derives its name from the identical Latin word, “mittimus,” which means “we send.” Mittimus is “the jury process of these counties and commands the proper officer of the county palatine to command the sheriff to summons the jury for trial of the cause, and to return the record.”

Whoa, hold on there. A little parsing of terms may be in order.

First, a “writ” is a form of written command in the name of a court or other legal authority to act, or abstain from acting, in some way. “Do this,” the court may say, or “don’t to that.” A “palatine” is just a fancy Latin word for a high official. It derives from when the Roman Empire has spread its wings over much of the known world and originally indicated a high-level official attached to imperial or royal court. If you’ve ever been to Rome, you may know the Palatine Hill. From the time of Augustus, imperial palaces were built there and it was from there that emanated the power of Rome.

But I digress.

In Olde England, a “county palatine” was an area ruled by a hereditary nobleman enjoying special authority and autonomy from the rest of a kingdom or empire. Putting the Humpty Dumpty of this bit of archaic law together again, in English practice, a mittimus was a written order by a court or other official to bring a party to a particular jurisdiction to be tried. By the way, a “cause” in this context simply means the thing to be tried. It is the grounds of the legal action.

That settled, in modern criminal practice, “mittimus” is a precept in writing (i.e., a writ) under the hand and seal of a justice of the peace or other competent officer (i.e., ordered by a judge), directed to the gaoler or keeper of a prison, commanding him to receive and safely keep a person charged with an offense therein named until he shall be delivered by due course of law.” Okay, maybe that doesn’t sound too modern.

“What the heck,” you may be asking, “is a gaoler?” Does a “gaoler” wear a hockey sweater and defend the net?

No, not so much. You’ve understandably been affected with irritable vowel syndrome and have your vowels mixed up. “A” before “o,” not “o” before “a.” “Gaoler” is simply a musty term that means a jailer, the word “goal” being a rather old one for a jail.

More concisely, to the contemporary tongue a, “mittimus” is a court order directing a sheriff or other police officer to escort a convict to a prison.

But, wait, there’s more!

“Mittimus” can also refer to the transcript of the conviction and sentencing stages which is duly certified by a clerk of court. It is the record of a conviction or acceptance of a guilty plea adopted as an order of the court and which the court has laid out as the punishment for the crime or crimes.

Example of ‘mittimus’

A quick example here may be in order. In exchange for a plea to the crime of habitual drunk driving, a mittimus might, in its essential parts, read something like this:

“The defendant was sentenced on such-and-such date. He/she plead guilty to one charge of driving under the influence with x-number of priors. It is the judgment/sentence of this court that the defendant be sentenced to probation for (x) period of time, community services for (y) number of hours, jail for (z) number of days,” and then whatever other conditions the court may wish to impose will be laid out, often stated as “other standard terms and conditions of probation.” The court will also likely impose “the following court costs” and state the amount the defendant will be ordered to pay. “Execution” of the order (which simply means enforcement of the order) may be immediate or may at times be stayed (or deferred) for a short time in order to give the defendant a brief opportunity to get her life in order before she reports to serve her time.

The mittimus will usually conclude with words that go something like this: “Therefore, it is ordered that the Sheriff of Such-and-such County shall convey the defendant to the following department to be received and kept according to the law at (fill in the blank) jail. Judgment of conviction is now entered.”

“Mittimus with your scones and coffee?”

“Nah; never mind. Do you have some marmalade instead?”

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddison, Tharp & Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody and divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address,

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