“What can I expect when I go to traffic court?”
Although every court is different, here are some basic things you can expect when you go to traffic court for arraignment on your court date.
1. You will be told what rights you have. It is a common practice in traffic courts for the judge or clerk to start the session with a presentation about the rights you have. Listen carefully to this presentation, as it may also include information about that court’s processes.
Your basic rights are: You enter into the court with the presumption of innocence, meaning the court must consider you have done nothing wrong, unless the State can show otherwise with proof beyond a reasonable doubt. You have a right to have an attorney represent you. If you cannot afford an attorney, you have a right to have one appointed to represent you at the government’s cost. You have the right to remain silent, and not say anything. You also have the right to testify if you choose. You have the right to present evidence to the court, or to choose not to present evidence. You have a right to have a trial in front of a judge or a judge and jury.
2. You will be asked how you want to plead. A plea in the law is a statement about what you want to do on your case. The three basic options are to plead not guilty, guilty, or nolo contendere (no contest). A guilty plea is admitting you committed the offense. A not guilty plea is saying you want to have a trial. A nolo contendere plea is saying you don’t want to admit to the offense, but you don’t want to have a trial.
Pleading guilty or nolo contendere—If you enter a guilty or nolo plea, you will be sentenced. A sentence is the punishment the court imposes for the offense. If the case requires a court appearance (this is usually required if the offense is a serious traffic offense, or a conviction results in a suspension of your driver’s license), you may have to appear before the judge to enter your plea. If it is a less serious offense, you may be able to enter your plea and pay a fine without having to speak with the judge.
Pleading not guilty—If you enter a not guilty plea, the court will need to know if you want to have a bench trial (in front of the judge) or a jury trial (in front of a judge and jury). If you are in a municipal or probate court and request jury trial, the case will be transferred to either superior or state court depending on which county you are in. You will receive a new court date to appear in that court.
If you request a bench trial, the court will let you know when that trial will be scheduled. In some courts, the trial will be the same day. In other courts, it will be set down for a different day, and you will get a notice of the new court date. Either way, know that you have a right to have the case continued so you have enough time to prepare for trial.
3. You will have a chance to talk with the prosecutor to resolve your case. Prosecutors are available in many traffic courts—although not in all of them—to represent the State. These attorneys do NOT represent you, and it is unwise to tell them about what actually happened in your case. However, it is worth talking with them to see if they are willing to reduce the charge to an non-reportable offense, recommend a lower fine, or dismiss the charge and issue a warning.
A lot of people get nervous about going into court, but if you know what to expect, you will feel less worried about what is likely to happen.
The Traffic Tip is only for informational and educational purposes. It is not intended to be legal advice. If you need help with a legal matter, you should contact a licensed lawyer in your state who understands the facts and circumstances of your particular case and the law that applies.
Check out my next Traffic Tip on Tuesday, October 17, 2017: “What is a nolo contendere plea, and how can it help me in traffic cases?”