11 Tips For Your First Court Appearance
Your court date is set. Now what?
The courtroom is an intimidating place, especially if it’s your first appearance. There are questions you’re probably asking, like “what should I wear” and “what do I say?”. The whole situation is daunting.
To help your day in court go smoothly, here are 11 tips for your first court appearance to get you through the proceedings without a hitch.
1) Hire an Attorney
Lawyers spend more time in court than you do. They know the rules, and they know what to say. It’s always the best option to have someone who knows the inner workings of the courtroom to represent you in your first court appearance, so find someone who has a good reputation and will argue your case effectively.
2) DO NOT BE LATE
Be early. You do not want to be late. As a general rule, the court works in a first come, first heard fashion. Defendants with attorneys, however, go ahead of defendants without attorneys. The worst that can come from being early is a longer wait. But a longer wait pales in comparison to a warrant for your arrest, because you missed your hearing.
If circumstances arise that make it absolutely impossible to get to the courthouse on time, call the judge’s clerk and your attorney to let them know your situation.
3) Dress For the Occasion
This is not the time to try out the latest fashion trends. Keep it conservative and as formal as possible. You don’t have to wear a suit and tie, but it doesn’t hurt to look your best. At the very least a collared shirt, tie, and dress pants for men. And for the ladies, nothing revealing, skin tight, and could be labeled as sexy. Keep it modest.
Your dress should not call attention to itself. The courtroom is not a Fashion Week event and judges are not aware that ripped jeans are in. You want the judge to take you seriously, not see you as a glowing neon sign that screams, “I’m partying with friends as soon as I get out of this place!”
4) Mind Your Manners
Be polite to everyone. From the clerk who checks you in to the court reporter, treat everyone with respect and show kindness. Judges are aware of how you conduct yourself around their staff, so be mindful of this when you’re talking to anyone in the courtroom.
Also, it’s important to note that a lot of judges give a substantial amount of power to their clerks in terms of scheduling. A clerk who likes you can make your first court appearance easier but a clerk who thinks you’re rude, arrogant, or mean can make your day more difficult.
5) Keep Your Voice Down
Speak softly in the courtroom. You don’t want to make the judge angry at your first court appearance by being disruptive while he’s dealing with another case. If your attorney asks you questions, answer them quietly or step outside if needed. It’s also important to note that if you have to leave the courtroom, do so without making any loud noises and close the door gently behind you as you exit.
View our infographic on What to Wear and How to Behave in court!
6) Take A Deep Breath
Once it’s your turn to be heard, you will get nervous. And that’s ok. Don’t worry if you get tongue tied or flustered, just take a deep breath and relax. Unlike you, this isn’t the judge’s first time in the courtroom and in most cases judges and court commissioners won’t blame defendants for being scared. Remain calm and don’t let your nerves get the better of you.
7) Keep Your Emotions In Check
Stay collected during your first court appearance and do your best to not show any emotion. Don’t be smug. Don’t get angry. See the previous tiptake a deep breath and relax. Even if you don’t say anything, judges notice your body language. If you’re frowning, smirking, or snickering, the judge will notice. You’re making a first impression at your first court appearance, you don’t want to make a bad impression on people who hold your future in their hands.
8) Use “Your Honor”
Speak only when spoken to. Always respond with “yes, your honor”, “no, your honor”, or “not guilty, your honor”. Talking to the judge is what your attorney is for, but if the judge addresses you make sure you speak clearly into the microphone. Don’t mumble and don’t try to make any jokes. Remember tip #4, mind your manners.
9) Plead Not Guilty
Any good attorney will plead “not guilty” on your behalf. You can change your plea from “not guilty” easily but it’s almost impossible to go from pleading “guilty” to “not guilty”. If you plead “guilty”, you’re done, you go to sentencing without seeing the other side’s cards. Pleading “not guilty” allows you to find out what the DA is offering. In essence, there is almost never any harm done by pleading “not guilty”.
It’s important to note that pleading “not guilty” is the exception to the rule about never lying in court. It’s understood that pleading “not guilty” is not a statement of fact but rather a combination of facts, opinion, and whether or not the prosecution has enough evidence to prove you’re guilty.
10) Understand Your Jurisdiction’s Rules on Bail
Different jurisdictions have different ways of setting bail. Some require cash bonds from everyone, but many don’t. It’s important to know the most likely outcome so you can plan accordingly. Your attorney should be able to answer any questions you might have about bail and can help you through the entire process.
11) Understand the Conditions of Bail
If you violate the terms of your bail, knowingly or unknowingly, you’ll get yourself in even more trouble. Conditions usually include stipulations like no contact with the alleged victim and no further violations of the law. If your charge involves drugs or alcohol, conditions might require complete sobriety, driving restrictions, an alcohol assessment, and possibly daily reporting to an official. Judges are given a lot freedom for setting conditions, so there could be additional conditions that you need to know and understand so you can avoid violating them.