It’s seven-thirty on a cold Monday morning, the coffee is brewing, and your car is out idling in the driveway. On any other day, you’d be stuck somewhere on I-15 and late to work, but today is different. Today is your first day in court, and your mind is racing. What is the judge going to say to you? Are you going to be sentenced? Is the prosecutor going to give you a good deal? Are the bailiffs going to take you into custody? How much jail time are you going to be given?
These are all good questions that can only be answered by an experienced defense attorney (or possibly a crystal ball – take your pick), but there is one question, at least, that this blog can answer for you: how exactly should you prepare yourself for the courtroom?
Now for anyone experienced with the Utah courts the answer to this question probably seems obvious: they’ve been inside the courtroom before and hopefully know what is expected. But for those who’ve never been in the courtroom, self-preparation is just one more thing to stress about before the big hearing, so it makes sense to get it out of the way early. Actually, there are just two things you really need to know before walking into that courtroom: how you should dress, and how you should behave.
1) The Courtroom Dress-Code
The courtroom has been around for a really, really long time, so it’s no surprise that everyone involved with it has a dress-code they’re expected to maintain. The judges have their robes, the bailiffs have their uniforms, the clerks have their office outfits and the lawyers have their snappy suits. But as the defendant, how exactly are you expected to dress?
Well, “Dress for Success,” as the old adage goes, but more specifically, dress to make a good impression on the court. Remember that this will be the first time – and possibly the last – that the judge and prosecutor meet you in person. Making a good first impression can be important in getting a reasonable sentence, so formal, “Sunday-Best” clothing is a good idea. Not only does it show everyone in the courtroom that you’re taking the hearing seriously, but it lets them know that you are treating the hearing with professionalism, and expect the same professional treatment in return. You’ll probably be surprised at the difference this kind of atmosphere will create for your case.
Of course, if you decide not to wear formal clothing, make sure you never wear things like shorts, tank tops, sandals or flip-flops to the hearing. Not only will you stand out like a sore thumb inside the courthouse, but you probably won’t even be allowed inside the courtroom. Since missing a hearing usually involves some pretty heavy consequences – like extra attorney fees or warrants being issued for your arrest, for example – it’s a good idea to make sure you can actually be at your hearing.
2) The Courtroom Etiquette
It might seem surprising, but anyone who has spent a significant amount of time inside a courtroom has seen it happen. A defendant steps up to the podium and, thinking the charges against them unjust and feeling upset about being accused, they start ranting in front of the judge about how their rights were violated by the police and how ridiculous the accusations against them are. Less surprising is how the judge typically reacts to this overtly-defensive behavior: with jail time.
So apart from the obvious behavior to avoid (like arguing with or insulting the judge), how exactly are you, as the defendant, expected to behave? After all, you are defending yourself against criminal charges, and even if you’re not entirely innocent, you probably feel at least a little indignant. Well, as any decent defense attorney will tell you, rule number 1 is to stay quiet and let your attorney do the talking. If your attorney has any amount of real experience, they’ll know what the judges and prosecutors do and do not want to hear, and they’ll know which words will help your case and which will hurt it. Speaking to the court when your attorney advises against it is an excellent way to shoot yourself in the foot, so it’s best not to do it.
Ok, so what if your attorney advises you to speak directly to the judge, or worse yet, what if you don’t have an attorney? In that case, the best idea is to be respectful in your responses and generally non-antagonistic. Passive though it may sound, when you’re facing criminal charges inside a courtroom, you’re dealing with people who have a lot of power over your immediate (and possibly distant), future. Refer to a judge as “your honor,” avoid talking over them, and keep your words brief and to the point. The bottom line is that the more you say, the more opportunities you create for yourself to say something that might hurt your case.
Finally, avoid overtly disrespectful activates while in the courtroom, like chewing gum, wearing hats, or worst of all, leaving your cell phone ringer on. Even if you’re not standing in front of the court when your cell phone goes off, it’s an excellent way to draw unwanted attention and ire from the judge before you’ve even had a chance to make your case. And if it does happen, you might want to consider asking your attorney to try and get the case continued, at least out long enough to allow the judge a chance to forget the incident. It’ll probably be worth the extra fee.
There are a whole lot of factors that influence how you are treated in a Utah courtroom, and even though they may not seem all that decisive, dressing appropriately and behaving properly can and do make a difference. With the seriousness of most criminal charges, it only makes sense that you do everything you can to improve your odds, so take the time to prepare yourself for the experience. And as always, consider hiring a private defense attorney to represent you – not only will they be with you there in the courtroom, but they’ll be able to answer any lingering questions you might still have about how you should dress and behave inside.
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