Recognizance (law Fr. reconisaunce; law Lat. recognitio),. an obligation of record entered into before a court of record or magistrate duly authorized to take it, with condition to perform some specified act; as to appear at the assizes or criminal court, to keep the peace, to pay a debt, or some other thing of a like description, upon the performance of which condition the obligation is to become null and void. The state or person in whose favor or to whom the recognizance is made is called the cognizee, and the person who enters into it the cognizor. The word recognizance is given to this kind of obligation, because, generally, the form of it is this: the clerk or other proper officer says to the cognizor: "You acknowledge yourself bound to," etc.; to which the cognizor assents; and it is then made matter of record. - Recognizances are of several kinds and descriptions, and are used for various purposes both civil and criminal. Of the former kind was a recognizance of debt at common law, in the nature of a deed to charge or encumber lands. This was very similar in form and effect to an ordinary bond, the main distinction being that while a bond is the creation of a fresh debt or obligation, a recognizance was the acknowledgment of a debt already existing upon record.
It was certified to or taken by the officer of some court, and witnessed only by the record of such court, instead of having the cognizor's seal affixed to it. It was not strictly a deed, though in effect it was of greater force and obligation, and was allowed a priority of payment, and bound the lands of the cognizor from the time of its enrolment on record. It operated as a lien upon all the lands which the cognizor possessed at the time he acknowledged it, and also upon all those which he afterward acquired, so that no alienation of them made by him while his recognizance remained in force would defeat the claim of the cognizee or prevent his extending such lands. Recognizances for debt may still be taken in this country under statutory provisions, but they operate merely as evidences of debt in the nature of a judgment, upon which execution may issue, and do not generally create a lien upon the cognizor's land or other property. - There were also, at common law, two other recognizances of a private sort, said to be in the nature of a statute staple and a statute merchant.
The undertaking of special bail in a civil action, of which the bail piece (a slip of parchment so called, on which it was transmitted to court) was a memorandum, was a recognizance entered into by the cognizors before the court or judge for a sum equal (or in some cases double) to that which the plaintiff had sworn to, by which they undertook that if the defendant was condemned in the action he should pay the costs and condemnation, or render himself a prisoner, or that they would pay it for him. - In criminal practice recognizances are used both as a means of securing the proper administration of justice by compelling the appearance of a party accused before a magistrate for further examination, or for trial at some superior court, and of securing the attendance of witnesses by binding them, with sufficient sureties, to appear and testify. They are used also as a means of preventing the commission of crimes, by obliging the persons suspected of an intent to commit them to recognize in some penal sum, with pledges or sureties, to keep the peace and be of good behavior for a certain time.
A recognizance to keep the peace may be taken by any justice of the peace, from any one who creates an affray or disturbance in his presence, or goes about with unusual attendance or weapons to the terror of the people, or is brought before him by a constable for a breach of the peace; and he is bound to grant it in favor of any person who can show just cause to believe that he is in danger of bodily harm at the hands of another. A recognizance for this purpose is an obligation in the nature of a bond with one or more sureties, entered of record, with condition that if its requirements are fulfilled and the cognizor keeps the peace for the time therein specified, it shall be void and of no effect. If on the contrary it is broken by any breach of the peace, it becomes forfeited or an absolute debt, and the cognizor and his sureties may be sued for the sums in which they are respectively bound. If it is a special recognizance, as to keep the peace toward any particular person, it may be forfeited by any actual violence, or even an assault or menace, to such person, and to such person only.
If it is a general recognizance, it is forfeited by any act which tends to break the peace, done to any person or thing in general. - A recognizance may be discharged by the death of the principal party bound thereby, or by the order of the court to which it is certified by the justice, if they see sufficient cause. If granted upon private account, it may be discharged if the person at whose request it was granted will consent to release it, or does not make his appearance to pray that it may be continued. - At the common law a peer or peeress could not be bound to recognize in any other place than the court of king's bench or chancery; but a justice of the peace had power to require sureties from any person, not a lunatic and under the degree of nobility, whether such person were a fellow justice or other magistrate or merely a private man. Wives may demand it against their husbands, and husbands, if necessary, against their wives; but at common law married women and infants should find security by their friends, because they are incapable of engaging themselves to answer any debt.
Some exceptions are made by statute, and the sweeping enlargement of the legal capacities of married women by the legislation of some states has probably removed this disability. - In old practice the verdict of an assize, or strictly the act of the jury in inquiring into the case in order to make up their verdict, was called a recognizance.