In my previous article, I talked about the importance of having a lawyer to represent you if you are going to court.
Today, I’ve got suggestions for you, the client, that can better prepare you for your interactions with the judge and jury who will be deciding your case.
1. Be on time for court.
The most important thing for you to do is to show up, on your court date, on time. Early is better, but late is terrible. Judges are busy, and even judges who are late to court themselves get angry at parties to a case (and their family members) when they arrive late. Check out your car the night before: fill your gas tank, check out your tire pressure, be sure your fluids are topped off if you’ve got a leaky engine. If you’re riding with a friend or family member, ask them to do this for you. If you’re using public transportation, check the route times. Get your clothes ready, get your alarm clock set, and make sure everything you need is ready to go.
In criminal matters, a late arrival can mean a bench warrant. In civil matters, it can mean that you lose your case.
What if you have an emergency? Be prepared for the unexpected by programming your phone with the numbers for your lawyer, the clerk of court, the district attorney or solicitor (in criminal cases), and the other side’s lawyer (in civil cases). Call them all if there is an emergency and you will be late or you won’t be in court. Shouldn’t your lawyer call everyone else for you? Yes, in a perfect world, he should. Do it yourself, too.
2. Always dress your best.
How should you dress for court? Over the years, I have seen the good, the bad,and the downright ugly. Wildly inappropriate outfits stand out in my memory the most: I will NEVER forget the older woman who wore a leather jacket, short leather skirt, fishnet stocking (yes, really) and over-the-knee fringed leather boots to court. My advice is always the same: wear the nicest, best fitting, cleanest outfit you possibly can wear. If you own a suit or a Sunday dress, wear it. If you can afford to buy something, even at a thrift shop or consignment, go get the nicest, best fitting outfit you can afford. Tie your shoes, tuck in your shirt, put on a tie if you have one….because the people who work in the court are watching, and they are judging. Justice isn’t blind to fashion, or should I say, to attire. When a man walks in with a suit on, or a woman walks in with a nice dress, every person who routinely works in the courtroom notices. We also notice the miniskirts, cleavage, sagging pants, and exposed chest hair.
We live in a time when it’s difficult for me to criticize clothing and fashion choices, but the harsh reality is that people WILL judge a book by its cover. I recommend caution when it comes to hair styles, body art, and jewelry: anything that can be covered SHOULD be covered. In the past, I have used clear retainers in facial piercings with great success at hiding them. If you don’t have access to clear retainers, check with your piercer about whether or not you can safely remove your piercing for the time you will be in court. And if you aren’t pierced, inked, or dyed, I don’t recommend doing work when you know you have a court date coming up. Sometimes, judges and juries are looking for a reason to find you’re guilty of something — even if that “something” is your appearance. Is it fair? No. It’s not fair. But it’s reality, and there is very little that your attorney can do to prove that the judgment against you was unfairly based on your appearance, even if you both know it to be true.
3. Bring support.
I’ve seen young men and women come to court by themselves, without a single person to stand for them. Especially in criminal cases, the lone defendant appears to have isolated every ally, burned every bridge, severed every tie. It’s much easier to send an isolated person to jail than it is to send a person with a loving and supportive family. This, too, is an unfair judgment, but it’s one that prosecutors, judges, and juries make. You combat this by bringing all the support you can: your parents, your grandparents, your friends, your bosses, your church mates…anyone who can sit with you in court or stand before the judge in your favor will make your side seem better to the court. Parents work, friends have responsibilities, and church members are sometimes as scared of the system as you are. So what then?
Never underestimate the value of a good letter. When I say “good,” I mean well-written. Ask a boss, a preacher, or a teacher to write a letter on your behalf, and give a copy to your attorney for your file. If you’ve completed substance abuse treatment, anger management classes, or defensive driving, ask for a letter to certify you’ve finished the course. If you are part of a group that does service work, for animals or kids perhaps, ask another member to write about your participation. Your goal is to show the court that you are a productive member of society, and letters can help you to demonstrate that.
4. Mind your manners.
It ought to go without saying that court is a time to be on your very best behavior…but unfortunately, it has to be said. I’ve seen everything from people going to sleep to young couples very nearly making out in the courtroom! Court is not a date night. No hanky-panky, no selfies, no chewing gum, no sleeping on the benches. While it’s good to bring family to support you, court is not a reunion, and you should remind your supporters that their behavior reflects on YOU, too.
One of my last jury trials for the state ended in a conviction. The large group of family and friends there to support the defendant went nuts: shouting, sobbing, fainting, threatening the victims…it was a nightmare. The sheriff’s office had to bring in reinforcements to clear the courthouse, and the victims and I had to be escorted out of the building. The judge observed all of this, and I can guarantee you that he remembered it when the family came before him again.
The court demands respect, and you need to be sure that your behavior — and the behavior of your supporters — is respectful.
This brings me to a final note…
5. Come to court substance-free.
Again, you’d think this would go without saying. But I have seen it, time and time again. Do not get drunk the night before your court appearance and come in smelling of alcohol. Do not smoke marijuana, use methamphetamines or cocaine, or take un-prescribed or excessive amounts of prescribed narcotics. If you must take painkillers, muscle relaxers, or anti-anxiety medication for a medical condition, and you absolutely cannot wait until court is over to take these medications, make sure that your attorney knows you must take them, and bring a copy of your prescription with you.
In some jurisdictions, judges will drug test criminal defendants or parties to family law disputes. If you come to court drunk or high, you may face contempt of court charges and jail time. The constitutionality of these tests will not matter while you are spending 20 days in a county jail. Don’t risk it.
If you are facing a court appearance for a criminal or family law matter, and you’d like more information or advice about how to prepare your case for court, and if you are not represented by an attorney, please call and speak to Lauren Deal. Our first consultation is free, and we are happy to talk to you. 478-254-9154.