It is very stressful to be charged with a crime. For many people, just the thought of going to court and having everyone judge you is a terribly frightening thought.
However, the following ten hot tips should help ease your concerns. Having the knowledge of what happens on the first day will give you some power.
1. The first day of court is called the arraignment. At that time, the prosecutor will have filed a Complaint, which is a formal document listing the charges against you.
Once your attorney receives it, he or she will say something like, “stipulate to due and proper arraignment, waive further reading of the complaint and advisements of rights, plead not guilty to all charges and deny any enhancements or priors.” This litany tells the judge that you accept that you are being charged with crimes and you will fight the allegations.
2. You should always go inside the courtroom as soon as it opens, even if your attorney has not arrived yet. Often, attorneys have cases in other courtrooms on the same day and may arrive to your courtroom a little after it opens.
If you go inside right away and your name is called, walk to the front of the courtroom and wait for the judge to ask you questions. Inevitably, one of the first questions is, do you have your own attorney? At this time, you can advise the judge that you do and he or she is supposed to be there. The judge will understand and give your attorney some time to arrive.
3. If you don’t have an attorney, but would like sometime to get one, you can always ask the judge for time to do so. To do this, wait for your name to be called, walk to the front of the courtroom, and when asked if you have your own attorney, respond that you do not, but would like some more time to look for one.
The judge will give you more time. Ask for a month. The judge will likely give you only one or two weeks, but there is no harm in asking for more time (this will allow you time to save the funds to hire a private attorney.)
4. When your name is called, make eye contact with the bailiff as you approach the front of the courtroom. This way, if there is a certain direction you are supposed to take to get to the front of the court room, the bailiff will show you.
For instance, in Sonoma County the bailiffs will not allow you to walk behind the prosecutor to get to the front so the bailiff will point out which way you are supposed to go, which will be to walk around the side of the bar (the wall between the public seating and the front of the courtroom) where the public defenders are. In all the other county’s I practice in, except Mendocino, they do not seem so concerned with the defendant’s proximity to the prosecutors.
5. If you do not have enough money to hire your own attorney and are expecting to get a public defender, then wait for your name to be called. When the judge asks you whether you have your own attorney, tell the judge you do not.
The judge will then ask you some questions to determine whether you qualify for a public defender. Generally, you qualify if you make no more than $2,000 per month and own no property. If you qualify, then the judge will appoint the public defender attorney to handle your case.
6. It is important that you dress appropriately for court. This means no shorts, sandals, or tank tops. You don’t have to dress in a suite, but make sure you dress as nice as you can. Also, most courts these days will not allow many items in the courtroom that are considered a safety risk. For that reason, take the same precautions you might take if you are boarding a plane.
So no knives, pointy things, nail clippers, chains, and certainly no guns! You will have to go through security, so be prepared for being checked for any of these items. Unless illegal, the security guards will ask if you want to return to your car with any item that violates their rules or if you want them to discard the item.
The security guards will not hold on to an item for you. I once had a metal water bottle seized from me. I really liked that water bottle because it was a souvenir from a trip I took to Yosemite with my wife. It was very difficult to get it back. It’s not worth the hassle so leave anything you think might violate the court security rules at home.
7. If you have your own attorney, he or she will do most of the talking. Some judges like to hear the “not guilty” from the defendant themselves. Other than that, you may be asked to answer some yes or no questions (like the questions they ask to determine whether you qualify for a public defender).
If you don’t know the answer, look to your attorney and he or she will be nodding or shaking their head to suggest the right answer.
If you don’t have your own attorney and don’t know the answer to a question being asked, by all means, tell the judge you don’t know the answer. It is far better to say that, then to guess or make up an answer. That will always get you in trouble in the courtroom.
8. One of the things that took me some time to get used to was the gruffness of the bailiffs. They will order you about, they will push you roughly out of the way, and if there is an emergency, you better stay out of the way or you may find yourself flat on your back after being run over as the bailiff addresses an emergency. Don’t take this personally.
They have a very difficult job to do. One of the things they are most concerned about is keeping order amongst the inmates who are brought into the court. Sometimes, they may consist of rival gang members with histories of violent crimes. They keep everybody safe and don’t have time to be nice about it.
So keep tuned to the bailiffs because they are the ones who ultimately control the courtroom. It’s not the judge so much. Even if the judge wants something done, he or she will ask the bailiff to do it.
9. Unfortunately, sometimes the result of your first court date is that you are taken into custody. This can happen when you were given a ticket and released instead of arrested. This means that bail was not imposed on you.
If the prosecutor or the judge believes the crime you are charged with warrants bail being imposed, then the judge will impose bail, you’ll be taken into custody, and will have to pay the bail to get out.
If you are taken into custody, do not resist, even if you believe being taken into custody is wrong. There is only one exception allowing you to resist an officer carrying out the performance of their duties and that is when they are using excessive force, but in most cases, resisting an officer will only make things worse.
That being said, you still have the right to remain silent about your case. However, you do have to answer questions about your name, drivers license, residence, etc.
10. Congratulations! You’ve gotten to court and gotten through arraignment without being taken into custody, now what? The judge will set the next court date usually about a month to a month and a half off. That court date will either be a trial date or a interim date to allow you and the prosecutor to try and resolve your case.
Whether a trial date or a settlement conference date (called differently from jurisdiction to jurisdiction) is set depends on the facts being used against you, how much jail or prison you are exposed to, an many other factors.
Unless you are well versed in the practice of law, it is extremely important you get an attorney to help you decide what to do in your particular case.
At Fiumara & Milligan Law, PC, we pride ourselves in providing the very best representation and legal advice.
We are experienced attorneys who know our way around the law. The right attorney makes all the difference, so make sure you call us. Know your rights!
Fiumara & Milligan Law, PC
182 Farmers Lane, Suite 100A
Santa Rosa, CA 95405
Or call us at our Marin County Office:
4040 Civic Center Drive, Suite 200
San Rafael, CA 94903