You’ve received word that your next court date and its coming soon. If we’ve done our job properly, you are prepared and ready for court. But maybe you forgot to ask some questions about how things will actually proceed in court. Or, as is often the case, there are a few details that need to be finalized before we collectively decide how we’re proceeding in your case. Regardless, there’s a few things all RDF clients should know before walking into court.
First, please remember to be properly dressed – refer to our Court Etiquette guide for this information. Other court dates are no different as far as the appropriate attire to wear for court. You should be dressed like you’re taking the process seriously. That non-verbal signal to the court and the prosecutor is important and helps your attorney do their job to the best of their ability.
Second, please be on time. We often plan to meet clients a little early to ensure we connect and answer any questions before court begins. However, things happen, traffic or other unexpected delays come up. But, if you’ve planned to get to court early, you should have a cushion of time that allows to be, at the very least, not late for the actual hearing.
It is important to understand that much of court is a “hurry up and wait” situation. That frustrating aspect of the criminal justice system is not lost on the attorneys (or anyone at RDF). The attorneys get stuck waiting for our case to be called just like you do. And, yes, it is annoying that the court expects us to be on time and ready to go while not holding themselves to the same standard. But, that is the world we’re in and we can’t change that. Just know, that being late can make us all look bad in the eyes of the court and prosecutor with whom we are negotiating your case.
Once you meet your attorney
Once you meet your attorney, you’ll cover last minute details about how things will proceed. Every jurisdiction or court is a bit different, and every judge is a bit different, but usually a few things will happen after your attorney answers all your pre-hearing questions to the best of their ability.
First, you’ll head to the courtroom where the court scheduled your case (the court calls it “the docket”). Typically, there will be many other people there for court too that have the same schedule courtroom and time that you do. This is why court can feel so laborious. Just like the airlines overbook, the court often schedules lots of cases all at the same time. Once the judge arrives, they start working their way through the docket and calling up each case. Each court is different in the way it proceeds through the docket, but rest assured, no matter the order in which the court decides to call cases, we will get our turn.
While were waiting for your matter to be called
Next, no matter what system the court employs to get through the docket, you’ll enter the courtroom with your attorney. Most require that the attorney checks in with the court clerk and or prosecutor (the representative of the District Attorney’s office). Even if the court doesn’t require it, often there is a benefit to us to talk with “the other side” to follow up on conversations or complete and negotiations on your behalf. You will need to take a seat in the courtroom as this occurs as only attorneys are allowed to complete these check ins. Due to the more relaxed setting prior to the judge entering the courtroom, this may appear like the attorneys are just ‘shooting the breeze’ while waiting for court. However, this often can be a very effective time to handle some business on your case prior to the more formal courtroom procedures once the judge starts the docket. As soon as your attorney is done discussing your case they will join you again and stay with you for the rest of the process so you won’t be facing it alone.
Sometimes, we will meet with the prosecutor and the judge “in chambers.” This means that we will go into the judge’s office to speak about the case “off the record” before the judge takes the bench and calls your case (once your case is called, everything is “on the record”). This can be a very effective time to accomplish things on your case. We can negotiate some difficult aspect of the case, or just give the court a head’s up about what we’ll be requesting so the judge has some time to consider their options, or to give us a clue ahead of time of what they may do with a particular request. This is another area of the court that clients are not allowed to enter, you will need to wait in the courtroom until this is completed. This is not designed to make you anxious or keep you in the dark – rest assured that important work is being done on your behalf. Once your attorney returns, they will update you about what occurred and what to expected moving forward.
Once your case is called
One of two general things is going to happen:
You may have discussed with your attorney the option of setting your case over. In this instance, not much will be said ‘on the record’, maybe a brief discussion of the reasons for taking more time and then picking new dates. Some jurisdictions allow you freedom to pick dates, others are very strict about what days certain things happen and we must work with the court schedule.
Regardless, if the case is being set-over, you’ll still come forward when the case is called, stand or sit by your attorney. The rule of thumb is usually to stand whenever talking to a judge or essentially to stand unless told otherwise, but you can follow your attorney’s lead on this – if they sit, sit. You’ll be addressed directly if anyone wants you to speak, but you can presume your lawyer is going to do most of the talking –in this type of procedure. We will do everything we can to minimize court appearances but sometimes the court requires that we show up in person. (even if it doesn’t seem to make much sense from the outside)
2. Entering a plea (case resolution)
If our case is not being set-over, then it likely is getting resolved in some fashion. Often that means a plea or some sort of hearing, like entering diversion. Resolutions of cases are very different than set-overs, and you may have to do more talking and participate in these situations. So, here’s some guidelines for what to expect here…
First, no matter whether you’re entering a plea or entering diversion, the basic scenarios and what you need to know are mostly the same. Once our case is called, follow your attorney up to the front. Your attorney will introduce themselves and your case and what we’re planning on accomplishing today.
Next, typically the judge will review the proposed terms of the plea deal with you. Every judge handles this process a bit differently, but typically they are going to ask you questions, often yes and no questions, about what you think is happening. This is not to trick you! The court must verify that you said out loud that you understand what is happening. The reason they need you to answer out loud is because court proceedings are recorded (“on the record”) and the record needs to reflect that you understand what you’re agreeing to. A typical question is, “Do you understand what is going on here today?”, or “Do you understand you have rights as a criminal defendant – the right to trial, etc?” If there are mandatory minimum penalties (fines, license suspensions, etc), they will go through those penalties to be sure you understand. These are items that we go over with you prior to court, so nothing should come as a surprise at this point.
If there is something you do not understand, ask your attorney! Your attorney can pause the proceedings and speak to you privately if needed. Do not just say what you think the court wants to hear – presumably, your actual answers are what the court wants to hear but please answer honestly. You will not be able to come back later and complain that you didn’t understand something so you need to make sure you understand this time.
Once the judge is satisfied that you understand, they often will then ask, “Well, then, to the charge of driving under the influence, how do you plead?” At that point, you say “guilty” or “no contest” – again, you will know this answer because we will have discussed it in advance.
The law requires that there must be what is called a “factual basis” for your plea. In other words, the courts wants to make sure that that if you think you’re pleading to a DUII, you’re actually pleading to a DUII and not some other crime. Depending on the jurisdiction, the prosecutor may read a brief recitation of the facts surrounding the incident as the prosecutor believes the facts to be, briefly summarizing the police reports. You may hear some things that you disagree with, but we are past the time to argue facts by accepting a plea deal. Its best to focus on the larger picture, than revisit the details, so try to just ignore it.
Once you enter a plea
The next step once you’ve entered your plea is one of the following: entering you into diversion, setting over the sentencing to another date, or going straight into sentencing. Sentencing is where the court decides the “punishment” so to speak. If you’re setting over sentencing, you’ll get a new date to return to court for your sentencing. Keep in mind that until your case is completely resolved, the release agreement you signed upon release from jail or at your arraignment remains in force. Violating that release agreement, or getting arrested again for another crime will greatly complicate your case and can make things exponentially worse. It is imperative that you stay out of trouble and avoid all negative police contact until your sentencing is completed.
If you’re entering diversion, the court will confirm that you have now entered into diversion. When your time in front of the judge is complete, your attorney will accompany you to sign up for your treatment evaluation and/or or the victim’s impact panel, which are some of the first requirements. You will also visit the court clerk to pay off the diversion court fees or set up a payment plan. Some jurisdictions require this to be done at a later time. If that is the case, your attorney will instruct you what your next steps are and how to accomplish them.
No matter what is happening for you in court, rest assured that your attorney will make sure that you are prepared ahead of time. Your attorney will make sure that you are set up for success every step of the way so to help you complete all of your court requirements timely and without issue. If at any point, you don’t understand what is happening or what you need to do next, do not hesitate to ask your attorney. We do this every day, so its commonplace for us, but understand that this is your first time and it can feel like visiting a foreign country. We will guide you through this so you feel comfortable that you know what is going on.