Georgia Criminal Law Blog – Top 5 Mistakes People Make in Municipal Court

Regardless of the severity, answering to criminal charges in court can be a intimidating. Imagine yourself in the courtroom. The judge calls your name, reads your charge(s) aloud to the entire room, and asks you how you plead. “Guilty, not guilty, or nolo?” the judge says. You might think to yourself, ‘I have no idea; are those my only options? What should I do?’

Far too often, I see people make snap judgements on their case without any idea of the true nature or consequences or their decision to the above question. This blog article will discuss the top five mistakes people make in the courtroom regarding their case and hopefully provide some insight on how to appropriately and intelligently handle your case.

Mistake #1 – Not Showing Up for Court

This may seem obvious to many, but you would be surprised at the number of individuals who fail to appear at their court date. While some people may think not appearing for their ticket in municipal court is no big deal, a “failure to appear” has serious consequences. First, in most jurisdictions, failing to appear at your court date will cause a “bench warrant” to be issued for the person’s arrest. This means you will be arrested, brought to jail, and kept there until the bench warrant is recalled or you resolve your case. Another consequence of failing to appear to court is a “bond forfeiture.” A bond is money or property used as collateral to guarantee your presence in court. If you don’t show up, your bond money is gone.

Mistake #2 – Blindly Pleading Guilty or Nolo Contendere

Mistakes happen, and sometimes pleading guilty or nolo contendere is the best way to resolve a case. But, all too frequently, I see people pleading guilty or nolo without really understanding the nature of the offense, the terms of their sentence, or the collateral consequences of entering a plea; all in order to just get the case over with.

Consider the following situation. A 20 year old person is charged with unlawfully passing a school bus. If convicted of this misdemeanor offense, punishment can include up to 12 months in jail or probation, $1000 in fines, community service, defensive driving school, and any other condition a sentencing judge finds necessary. This is also a six point offense on your license. The 20 year old enters a nolo plea on the first court date to get it over with.

What the 20 year old doesn’t know is that for a person under 21 years of age, there will be an automatic 6-month license suspension. Furthermore, a nolo plea (available once every five years) is useless in this situation as it will not prevent the offense from being reported to DDS.

Mistake #3 – Not Having a “Pre-Trial Conference”

Not having a “pre-trial conference” is one of the biggest and most common mistakes people make while in municipal court. By telling the judge you want a “pre-trial conference” you are signaling to the judge that you want to have a conversation with the prosecutor to negotiate the case in order to reach a resolution. You should always have a pre-trial conference.

Here is how to conduct a pre-trial conference:

  • Politely introduce yourself
  • Politely ask the prosecutor what their recommendation / offer is
  • If the offer is acceptable, thank the prosecutor for their discretion
  • If the offer is unacceptable, see if you can get a better offer
    • Without admitting guilt, try to get certain charges or conditions reduced or dismissed
    • Without admitting guilt, explain the situation or reason for the violation or present mitigating evidence if you feel you are losing the negotiation

It is important to understand: anything you say to the prosecutor about your case can be used against you later on.

Mistake #4 – Not Requesting a Jury Trial

Let’s use another example. A 30 year old male is wrongly arrested for DUI – Less Safe. After appearing in court and having a pretrial conference, the prosecutor will not dismiss or reduce the case. The judge then asks the man, “guilty or not guilty?” The man pleads “not guilty.” The judge then asks whether the man wants a bench trial or jury trial. What should the man do?

The answer is jury trial. A bench trial will be held in the municipal court where the judge, not a jury, will decide guilty or not guilty. A jury trial will remove the case from municipal court, and “bind the case over” to the State court in the county where the municipal court sits. A jury trial is preferred over a bench trial because: (1) the state needs to prove the case to six people rather than one; (2) there are opportunities to suppress evidence and otherwise litigate the case in State court where there may not be in municipal court; (3) jurors can better relate to DUI offenses than most judges; (4) the State court prosecutors may not “accuse” the case or may be willing to dismiss or reduce; and (5) the delay created by the bind over may benefit the case (witness memory or unavailability).

Mistake #5 – Not Having a Lawyer

All four of the above mistakes can be avoided if the person accused obtains legal counsel. An experienced lawyer will ensure you appear to court when necessary, can effectively negotiate the case, will properly advise clients of all of their options and consequences in accepting or rejecting a plea, understand the strategical considerations of when to bind over a case, and can provide peace of mind to the arrested individual. The United States  and State of Georgia Constitution guarantee a person facing criminal charges the right to counsel, private or public. While certainly some cases can be effectively handled without an attorney, there is an enormous benefit in being represented for a criminal case, no matter how big or small.

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If you or someone you know is facing criminal prosecution, please contact our office today at 404-581-0999 for a free consultation. Our firm has specialized knowledge and experience in handling criminal cases in multiple jurisdictions across Georgia.