Our criminal justice system operates under the basic principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty. That determination of innocence or guilt is ultimately decided in court by means of a plea agreement or a trial. There are many opportunities for a person to help themselves or, if not properly prepared, severely hurt their case throughout the process. Here are some tips to help make your next trip to court a little less intimidating.
BE EARLY: Arrive at least 10 - 15 minutes early. You might have to wait a while for everything to get moving, but when the court is ready to proceed, they are not going to wait for you.
DRESS APPROPRIATELY: For most hearings, you should, at the very least wear dress slacks and a dress shirt (men or women) or a conservative dress (women) with dress shoes or heels, even though you can’t go wrong with a business suit. Remember, you are going to court, not a night club, play basketball with your friends or to shoot the latest rap video. This means nothing baggy, no sneakers, excessive or gaudy jewelry, or an extra low-cut mini-dress with thigh-high boots. Also, remove your hat and sunglasses (unless you have medical reasons) and make sure you are clean and well-groomed.
TURN OFF YOUR PHONE: Cell phones are a convenience item and you will not die if it is shut off for a while. They can be extremely distracting and, besides, most courts have banned them.
BE POLITE AND RESPECTFUL: Please and thank you will take you far. The fact is, unless you regularly go to the courthouse and interact with the people that work there, you do not know who you are speaking with so you want to mind your manners from the moment you pull into the parking lot just in case one of the people you came across are tied to your case in some way.
EDUCATE YOUR SUPPORT SYSTEM: Make sure that whoever is accompanying you to court understands the rules. They need to be on time, not disrupt, keep any children calm and quiet, and turn off their cell phone. The judge has the authority to remove anyone being disruptive at any time.
SECURITY: We live in dangerous times and, as a result, security checks are the norm. Do not bring weapons and drugs. Do bring a lot of patience, though, because many times the lines are very long, especially early in the morning. Do not argue or complain excessively, the officers are doing these checks for your safety, not just to ruin your day.
PAY ATTENTION: While waiting your turn look for cues within the court. How does the judge prefer to be addressed (Your Honor, Judge Xyz, Judge, etc.)? Also, how will you know what is happening or when you are up if you don’t pay attention?
FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS: Sometimes the court attendant or one of the bailiffs will give instructions before the judge enters; he/she is not doing so for their health.
BE QUIET: Most hearings are recorded. This recording can be audio, video, through stenography, or some combination thereof. Unnecessary noise is not appreciated and, in many instances, not tolerated.
TURN OFF YOUR PHONE: This is so important that I will say it again…TURN OFF YOUR PHONE. Most courts ban them and if you are in a courtroom, the current situation you are dealing with should be the priority and your main focus.
BE MINDFUL OR YOUR ACTIONS: Don’t roll your eyes, make faces, comment, snicker, fidget, etc., no matter what others are saying in the courtroom. Your actions are being observed and could indirectly affect how you are viewed or treated throughout the proceeding.
STAND: When the judge enters the room it is customary to stand and remain standing until instructed to sit.
THE HEARING (ADDRESSING THE COURT)
DON’T INTERRUPT: Most people do not like to be interrupted, judges hate it. They also have the authority to remove you from court or charge you with contempt of court so keep that in mind when the urge strikes you to speak out, yell, snort, slam the table, laugh, stomp your feet, or do whatever other childish behavior that crosses your mind because you don’t agree with what is being said.
REMEMBER YOUR LAWYER: More times than not, you will have a lawyer with you in court. Do not speak unless asked to do so directly, your lawyer is your representative and it is his/her job to speak on your behalf.
STAND UP: When you are asked to speak, you need to stand up, unless you are going into the witness stand or have been granted permission by the court to remain seated.
DON’T BE SHY: When addressing the court speak loudly, clearly and without an attitude. Everything is being recorded and you may need those recordings for an appeal or other reasons, you do not want to miss out on an opportunity because you suddenly became too shy to speak.
RESPECT THE JUDGE: When in doubt “Your Honor” is the best way to address the judge. Do not insult the judge, do not swear in court (unless you are testifying and it is important for accuracy), do not spit at the judge, throw things at the judge, etc.
THINK BEFORE YOU SPEAK: When testifying or being questioned think a moment before you answer. Inaccuracies make you lose credibility and could hurt you in the long run.
DON’T GET BULLIED: Some lawyers will try to pressure you into giving fast answers or will aggressively ask the same question in a slightly different way as a tactic to get a different response out of you. Take your time and don’t succumb to the pressure. If you feel you are being badgered, address it to the judge in as calm and respectful manner as possible.
MAKE EYE CONTACT: When you answer, make eye contact with the person addressing you (without appearing challenging or aggressive); this is especially important with a jury, you should try to make brief eye contact with each jury member.
KEEP CALM: No matter what happens, regardless of the outcome of the day or the verdict that comes back, stay calm. In most cases there is an opportunity for appeal and, if granted, the odds are you will be back in the same court so you want to show restraint.
If you are going to court always remember these three basic rules:
1) be polite
2) be calm
3) above all else, be prepared.
If you or a loved one are going to court and are in need of coaching and preparation, contact us.