What to Expect in Court:
When you are charged with a Traffic or Criminal Offense, what occurs in Court is the most important aspect of the case. You may not know what to expect in court but, in many instances, the Court rulings can vary from good to be. However, there has been one constant we have observed over the years – you are better off with a lawyer than representing yourself.
Get to Court early. If you are late, the Judge will either find you guilty in your absence, which will result in a conviction, or the Judge will issue a bench warrant for your arrest. It is not likely the Judge will find you not guilty since there is no evidence to controvert the officer's testimony. Certainly, you should not anticipate a bench warrant on a traffic infraction. Instead, if you are merely charged with a traffic infraction, such as failure to obey a highway sign, you will be issued a fine and be assessed the applicable demerit points by the DMV. Conversely, misdemeanor and felony charges may lead to a bench warrant if you are late or fail to appear and, in some cases, license suspension.
When you appear for Court, have any evidence ready you wish to show the Court, such as pictures, driver improvement course certificates, calibration affidavits, etc. Depending on the Judge, even mitigating evidence can go a long way to showing who you are and what you've done to fix the issue (as much as you can in any event). Judges see hundreds of people a week so be sure to set yourself apart from the other defendants.
SET YOURSELF APART:
Judges see hundreds of defendants every week. Be sure to set yourself apart from the others. First, be polite and courteous. Address the Judge as ‘Your Honor' and don't be afraid to smile upon approaching the podium. Certainly, it may not be appropriate to smile during the entire proceeding because you do want to be viewed as taking your case seriously. However, a calm pleasant demeanor goes a long way. Additionally, dress appropriately. While a suit is not necessarily, dress as if your going to church.
During the proceedings, the officer will get to testify first. This is your opportunity to listen and take notes. DO NOT shake your head or make any other negative non-verbal communication as it is not appropriate and the Judge will tell you to stop. You will be given an opportunity to ask the officer questions, such as whether his vantage point was conducive to seeing you commit the crime alleged. This is where it is a good idea to take notes during the officer's testimony. After questioning the officer, if you choose to at all, you will be given an opportunity to testify. If the Judge finds you guilty, then present your mitigating evidence. Make the Judge want to help you.
Procedurally, the Judge will call the docket in order of the officer's cases. When the Judge calls your officer, listen for your name. Upon being called, the Judge will ask if you if you wish to plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest. If you plead guilty or no contest, the Judge will likely sentence you on the spot and hand down your sentence. If you plead not guilty, your case will be “passed over” and you will be called at a later time for trial. As the courtroom gradually empties, this will become your best chance at getting a charge reduced by the Court. There are less defendants in the courtroom and it's a better time for a better result. Unfortunately, some Judges will reduce charges and some Judges will not. You have no control over which Judge you get on a particular day which is why retaining a lawyer is important for your case. Finally, for a misdemeanor or felony charge, the Judge will likely ask if you have a lawyer or wish to be represented by a lawyer. This inquiry should be a red flag to you that you need a lawyer and you should take the court up on the offer. If you cannot afford a lawyer, the court will appoint one for you. If you have the financial ability to hire a lawyer, do so. The Judge will continue the case to the officer's next court date to give you an opportunity to obtain a lawyer. You will be required to return at that new court date set by the Judge.
If You Have a Lawyer:
Should you decide to retain a lawyer or have a lawyer appointed to you, the courtroom procedure will be radically different. In fact, in some cases, the lawyer can appear on your behalf and you will not even need to be present for Court at all. Of course, this largely depends on the charge and whether jail time is an issue. For simple traffic infractions, the lawyer can generally appear for court on your behalf. Of course, in cases where you want to appear or it's in your best interest to appear, it will depend on the jurisdiction whether the Judge calls your name. For example, in Fairfax County, the Judge will call through the docket as normal but will not call your name. The reason the Judge does not call your name is because your file is not on his or her bench and is actually on the prosecutor's table. Your lawyer will speak with the prosecutor later on in the docket after they've finished speaking with all of the officers and victims, if any. The lawyer will negotiate a plea bargain to have the charge reduced, dismissed, or jail taken off the table (if possible). Conversely, in Prince William County, the Judge will call your name as they go through the docket and you will need to indicate you are present in Court and that you have a lawyer. The Judge will then pass the case over and allow your lawyer time to negotiate with the prosecutor.
If you have a lawyer, and a plea bargain does not appear to be appropriate, either based on the facts of the case or there's a legal defense, then a trial may be the proper course and would be had at the end of the docket. You would decide with your lawyer whether you will testify on your behalf and, if so, go over what questions your lawyer will ask you. You would also be subject to cross-examination by the prosecutor should you testify and you should discuss this issue with your lawyer. At the conclusion of all of the evidence, the Judge will render a verdict of not guilty or guilty and sentence you accordingly.
LETNICK LAW FIRM, PLC
The lawyers at Letnick Law Firm, PLC, will speak to you ahead of Court and let you know what to expect in court. We will discuss whether you need to appear, whether a plea bargain is appropriate, and whether a trial is appropriate. We will also do our best based on our experience to give you a good idea as to what the likely result is going to be. Our goal is getting the charge either reduced or dismissed and you, our client, will have the ultimate say as to how you want the case to proceed.