Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Preparing for...Court

Today I had to go to court. Nothing major, just a parking ticket that I felt I should fight on principle, however I came away with some court preparedness tips. Note that fighting something simple like a parking ticket is less about saving money (compared to what I make per hour, I would have been financially better off to just pay it) than it is about learning something from the experience. I tend to go to court somewhat regularly but usually as an observer, not as the one talking to the judge. Here's some notes:
  • Arrive on time. Granted this was an inner city court for very minor cases but I have seen district court cases where the defendant came in late and the judge was not happy. Being on time shows respect.
  • Arrive period. Some people blow off court summons and this is a bad idea. The next time you get pulled over for a traffic infraction you may find that there is a warrant for your arrest because you were summoned to court and took it upon yourself not to attend.
  • Dress appropriately. The people waiting to plead their cases today ran the gamut from torn shorts and tank tops to appropriate business dress. Again this is a respect issue. A court room is not the beach and although this judge let things slide, I've seen other judges toss people out for being inappropriately dressed.
  • Other basic respectful behavior: cell phones off, pay attention, be silent unless spoken too, say yes sir and no sir, etc.
  • Don't do something that will piss off the judge and/or in civil/criminal cases, your attorney. I've seen people show up in court intoxicated or visibly under the influence of drugs, rival gang members fighting in the hallway, people who didn't understand simple logic, et al.
  • When you are called in front of the judge, stand up straight, look the judge in the eye, state your case factually--in proper English--and briefly (the judge has to hear dozens of cases a day and doesn't need to hear a long story/boring story/expletives/mumbling/slang/information not at all related to the case/etc).
  • Bring evidence. A few people today tried to describe a situation where a simple picture would have been much more effective. In other cases people say "I could have brought", "I have it at home", and "I can call the bank/landlord/employer for that document if needed"; all of these are excuses for not being prepared. Be prepared with any supporting documentation that will help your case.
  • Get an attorney if needed. Traffic court and small claims court allow you to present your own case and in criminal court you are assigned an attorney if you can't afford one, but I have seen people show up for civil cases that are pretty important (ie: where their children or finances were at stake) and not have an attorney. Yes attorneys are expensive but that is what your emergency fund is for. Also, don't represent yourself, even if you are a lawyer. I have only known one person (he wasn't a lawyer) who represented himself all the way up to the state Supreme Court (and did a better job than all of the prosecution's attorneys combined) but that is a rarity.
  • When you're done, pay up. Although the judge knocked everyone's tickets down (including mine) I was prepared to pay in full if needed. I was rather surprised that people who needed to pay only $50 asked for months to pay off that small amount and a few even signed up for community service to pay off the debt. It's scary to think that more than half of the people at the court during the time I was there didn't have $50 extra to their name. What if they had to buy a tankful of gas to escape the area? What if their kid needed medication? Another good reason for an emergency fund.

Overall it was an interesting experience and a useful way to spend an hour.

1 comment:

  1. Good post. Additional tips - a lot of judges and court staff don't like people wearing hats in the courtroom. Or chewing gum. Or having any conversation above a whisper (and sometimes even whispers are bad).

    Thanks for the suggestion of hiring a lawyer. People call me and I'll talk to them about why it might, or might not, be worth hiring me. On a parking ticket it'd be a waste of money.