Stage #5 — Trial
So, you went to your arraignment and entered a plea of “not guilty”. The case was scheduled for trial about 30 days later. You requested and received discovery materials. Now it is time for trial. What happens now?
First, there is a simple question to answer – is the officer going to show up? Most of the time, they do. After all, part of their job is going to court. If they issue tickets and then never show up for trial, eventually word will get out, and everybody will set their tickets for trial. Realistically, officers get in trouble if they miss too many of these, so there is a pretty good chance that your officer is going to be there.
However, sometimes mistakes are made. When a case is set for trial, a subpoena is sent to the officer, but sometimes the subpoena does not get sent, and sometimes the police agency mishandles it, so there is always a chance that the officer does not know about the court date. If your officer simply does not show, the case should be dismissed.
These are pretty rare in Santa Clara County, though. More often, the officer knows about the court date, but simply cannot make it. Common reasons include vacation, sick leave, and mandatory training. Except under very unusual circumstances, the Commissioner will allow the officer to reschedule. The clerk will get a call from the officer, explaining the conflict and requesting a continuance.
Definition: “Continuance” – This is the legal term for a postponement. Any time a court hearing is canceled, and rescheduled for a later day or time, it is called a continuance.
Most Commissioners allow each side one continuance. This means that, if you have a strong reason not to proceed on the first trial date, you may be able to get a continuance to another day, but there is no guarantee. Similarly, the officer is likely to get a first continuance upon request. However, if the second trial date comes around, and the officer requests a second continuance, most Commissioners will dismiss your case.
There are no clear rules on continuances in traffic court. There are statutes that govern the law of continuances, and appellate court decisions interpreting those cases, but traffic courts operate with a certain amount of informality, and the Commissioners have a lot of latitude, so the “rules” do not necessarily apply. The point is this – the “officer no show” dismissal is not as simple as you might have heard. It happens, but not automatically, and almost never at the first trial date.
In your case, though, we will assume the officer is there and ready to testify. Now you have a choice to make. Most Commissioners will call the trial calendar to see who is present, and announce cases that are being continued or dismissed. Then the Commissioner will ask whether anyone has a case that is going to settle. This is your chance to resolve the case without having a trial. Remember in Section #3, where I talked about traffic school before versus after a trial? Technically, you have not had a trial yet, so most Commissioners will agree that you can still plead “no contest” at this point, and get traffic school. However, if the trial goes forward, and you lose, it will be up to the Commissioner to give you traffic school or not, and many of them will not (or will do so only rarely).
You can also try talking to the officer before court starts. Some officers will agree to reduce a ticket to a no-points violation. However, this is a risky business. You definitely do not want to talk about the facts with the officer, because you might find yourself in trial 20 minutes later, with the officer testifying that, out in the hall, you admitted to speeding. Maybe your words were misconstrued, but the damage is done.
This is another difference between the unrepresented defendant and the person who hired an attorney. When I talk to an officer or prosecutor, I can talk about the facts of the case, but my words cannot be used against you in court. So, we can have a frank conversation about the case, and discuss a possible deal, without endangering your trial defense.
If there is no deal to be made, and you are not doing a “no contest” plea for traffic school, then it is time for trial. First, the officer will testify, telling the story of the traffic stop, your conversation, and the citation, from beginning to end. Then, you will get to ask the officer questions. This is called cross-examination, and it is your chance to ask the officer anything that is relevant. Cross-examination is not your chance to testify. That comes after. Once you are done asking the officer questions, the Commissioner may ask if the officer has anything else to add. If not, then it is your turn.
Definition: “Relevant” – Evidence is relevant if it is closely related to an important issue in the case. Only the Commissioner gets to decide what is relevant, but there are a lot of rules on relevance, and appellate court decisions interpreting the rules. An experienced attorney knows the rules of evidence and can use them to get good evidence in and keep bad evidence out.
This may be traffic court, but it is a criminal case, which means you have the right to remain silent. Sometimes I sit in traffic court, waiting for something, and get a chance to see unrepresented defendants handle their own trials. It is frequently difficult to watch, because I can see the traps coming, and have no way to warn the person. But here is one observation I have made that borders on being a rule – testifying on your own behalf almost never helps.
Remember, the officer has a certain amount of credibility – the badge and the uniform send a message that says, “this person can be trusted”, and most Commissioners will hear the message loud and clear. You, on the other hand, have a direct financial interest in a finding of “not guilty”, and the Commissioner does not know anything about you. Faced with the two of you, side by side, saying opposite things, most Commissioners are going to believe the officer and assume you are lying. If they are feeling charitable, they might assume that you are mistaken or confused, but either way, you lose. I know this is not fair, but it is the reality of the process.
I cannot tell you how to conduct a trial, because this is just a general guide to the court process, and I could only provide advice on a trial if I knew all the facts and fully understood your case. I can tell you, however, that testifying almost never helps. Many people have walked into traffic court thinking that they can just tell their story and prevail, and almost all of them walk out disappointed. There are exceptions, of course, but they are few and far between.
After a trial, there are two results – guilty or not guilty. If you are not guilty, grab the court paperwork and make sure the clerk checked the right box, and then take off – you are free! If you are guilty, then the Commissioner will move on to talking about fines and fees. This is also your chance to ask for traffic school, if you are eligible and it is a points violation. However, it is up to the Commissioner, and be prepared – they may say no.
In some cases, if you are found guilty, the Commissioner may do other things as well. One particular Commissioner likes to suspend driver’s licenses for high-speed violations. Technically, they have the power to do this after any conviction of a speed violation, and the suspension can last from 30 days to 6 months. They also have the power to order you into traffic school, not for the purposes of point clearance but just because they think you need it.
The point is this – there is no way to be sure how a trial is going to go, and no way to be sure what will happen after. Going to trial is always a risk, but sometimes it is worth doing.
As an attorney, I can usually do every part of the case, including the trial, without my client present. Occasionally, there is a specific reason to have the client there, but most of the time, I go to court without the client. Trials alternate between being stressful or boring, so unless I need you there for a particular reason, you might as well skip it. It also sometimes helps to keep the client away. Sometimes Commissioners will bend the rules, asking a client questions directly which infringe on the right to remain silent, and some Commissioners seem to become more hostile when the client is present. However, if you need to be there in order to help with part of the case, or simply want to be there for your own reasons, nobody can keep you away.