The term “recognizance” refers to an obligation the court enters that holds an individual to a particular condition. For example, recognizance refers to the court agreeing not to imprison a defendant, so long as he agrees to attend supervised probation in its place. Other ways of describing a recognizance include “a release on one’s own recognizance (ROR),” “own recognizance (OR)” or “personal recognizance (PR).” To explore this concept, consider the following recognizance definition.

Definition of Recognizance


  1. An obligation a court holds an individual to in exchange for his freedom.


1350–1400       Middle English

Own Recognizance

Own Recognizance (OR) is the same as bail, only without the upfront cost that bail requires. Everything else about Own Recognizance remains the same. Instead of paying a fee, however, the defendant signs a written promise to return for future court dates in exchange for his potentially temporary freedom. Just like being out on bail, the defendant will need to complete the requirements set for him by the court in order for the court to consider him a well-behaved defendant.

Release on Recognizance

A Release on Recognizance (ROR) is a written promise that a defendant signs agreeing to show up for future appearances in court in exchange for his freedom while he awaits trial. He also agrees to refrain from engaging in any further criminal behavior when the court issues an ROR.

Typically, the seriousness of the crime determines whether a court will grant an ROR. Non-violent cases or low-level misdemeanors like shoplifting, traffic violations, and first offenses may all qualify for ROR. Along with an ROR, the judge will specify the conditions the defendant must meet in order to be compliant. These conditions may include such things as:

  • A curfew
  • Adhering to a stay-away order of protection
  • Checking in with a supervising officer
  • Restrictions on travel
  • Mandatory rehab

If the defendant fails to adhere to these requirements, or if he does not appear for his future court dates, then the court can order a warrant for his arrest. If a defendant requests ROR and the court denies his request, then he needs to post bail in order to earn his freedom while he awaits trial.

How It Is Determined to Release Someone on OR

When deciding whether to release someone on OR, a judge will consider a variety of factors, including whether the defendant may be a flight risk. To determine this, the judge will often perform a background check on the defendant, or even check his criminal record or his history with regard to his attendance for court appearances. Whether the defendant is employed in the local area and has familial ties to the area also play a part in the judge’s decision to release someone on OR.

Interestingly, some courts use math to figure out whether to release someone on OR. They enter the defendant’s information into the system, like their age and criminal history, and the system runs an algorithm. The algorithm then assesses whether the defendant is likely to commit another crime while out on bail or fail to appear at future court dates.

Recognizance Example Involving Multiple Felonies in Multiple States

An example of recognizance in a court case appears in the matter of Taylor v. Taintor (1872). Here, authorities in Connecticut charged Edward McGuire with grand larceny, and the court issued a bench warrant. Police arrested McGuire and held him in custody, and the court set his bail at $8,000. The court then agreed to issue an ROR on the condition that McGuire appear before the court the following month. McGuire failed to appear at his next court date because he had, in fact, returned to his home in New York, and so the court revoked his freedom.


However, what the Connecticut bondsmen did not know was that the authorities in Maine also wanted McGuire for a different felony entirely. The Governor of Maine requested McGuire’s extradition back to Maine, and the Governor of New York complied. McGuire’s case then went to trial in Maine, and the trial court convicted him of burglary and sentenced him to fifteen years in prison.

When McGuire failed to appear in Connecticut for trial because he was in prison in Maine, the court revoked his cash bond, leaving the bail bondsmen high and dry. The Connecticut bondsmen then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for relief, arguing that they did not fail to secure McGuire’s appearance, but that his failure to appear was the result of his extradition to Maine.

Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court did not agree with the bondsmen, voting 4 : 3 (two of the justices had recused themselves) that the men were at fault. The Court held that the bondsmen were negligent in failing to both keep abreast of what McGuire was doing, and alert the New York authorities of his returning to the state. As a result, per the Court, the bondsmen were responsible for McGuire’s failure to appear in Connecticut. Thus, they were out the amount they had put up for McGuire’s release.

Said the Court, in their own words:

“We cannot hold that Connecticut was in any sense a party or consenting to what was done in New York. It follows that if McGuire had been held in custody in New York at the time fixed for his appearance in Connecticut, it would not in any wise have affected the obligation of the recognizance.

A different doctrine would be fraught with mischief. It could hardly fail, by fraud and connivance, to lead frequently to abuses, involving the escape of offenders of a high grade, with pecuniary immunity to themselves and their sureties. Every violation of the criminal laws of a state is within the meaning of the Constitution, and may be made the foundation of a requisition. [Footnote 17] Hence the facility of escape if this instrumentality could be used to effect that object. The rule we have announced guards against such results.

The supposed analogy between a surrender under a treaty providing for extradition and the surrender here in question has been earnestly pressed upon our attention. There, the act is done by the authorities of the nation – in behalf of the nation – pursuant to a National obligation. That obligation rests alike upon the people of all the states. A National exigency might require prompt affirmative action. In making the order of surrender, all the states, through their constituted agent, the general government, are represented and concur, and it may well be said to be the act of each and all of them. Not so here.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Bail – The temporary release of an individual accused of a crime and awaiting trial, sometimes on the condition that he first pays a fee as a way to guarantee his appearance at future court dates.
  • Bail Bond – A formal document securing a person’s temporary release from custody, based on his partial payment of the bail ordered by the court.
  • Bench Warrant – A written order issued by a judge that authorizes the arrest of an individual charged with a crime or contempt of court.
  • Bondsman – An individual who assumes the responsibility for a bond.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a person has filed a lawsuit in civil court, or who stands accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Extradition – Extradition defined and explained with examples. Extradition is returning a person to his home country or state for the purpose of criminal prosecution.
  • Order of Protection – A document issued by a court to protect individuals from harassment or abuse.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to rule in a civil matter.