Under our American system of justice, all persons are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. The State must prove you guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” of the offense with which you are charged. Every criminal defendant has the right to remain silent and refuse to testify. You have the right to retain an attorney and have them try your case or answer your questions.
Since offenses in this court are punishable only by fine and not by incarceration, you do not have the right to appointed counsel. You have the right to a jury trial. You may waive a jury trial and have a trial before the Judge, commonly called a “bench trial.” If you elect to represent yourself, no person other than an attorney can assist you during a trial.
At trial you have many rights including:
1) The right to have notice of the complaint not later than the day before any proceedings in the prosecution.
2) The right to inspect the complaint before trial, and have it read to you at the trial.
3) The right to hear all testimony introduced against you.
4) The right to cross-examine witnesses who testify against you.
5) The right to testify on your own behalf.
6) The right not to testify. (Your refusal to do so may not be held against you in determining your innocence or guilt)
7) You may call witnesses to testify on your behalf at the trial, and have the court issue a subpoena (a court order) to any witnesses to ensure their appearance at the trial.
In addition to your rights, you have some legal responsibilities. The law requires you to make an appearance in your case. Your appearance date is noted on your citation. You or your attorney may appear in person; by mail or by email. (Juveniles have a separate set of rules for their appearance)
Your first appearance is to determine your plea. If you waive a jury trial and plead guilty or nolo contendere (no contest), you may request defensive driving; monthly payment plan; extension of 30 days; indigency for community service or pay in full.
If you plead not guilty; you will need to select if you want a trial by Judge or trial by Jury. You will then be set for a Pre-trial court date.
Plea of Nolo Contendere (no contest)
A plea of nolo contendere means that you do not contest the State’s charge against you.
Plea of Guilty
A plea of guilty means that you admit to the criminal offense charged against you.
Plea of Not Guilty
A plea of not guilty means that you deny guilt and require the State to prove the charge. A plea of not guilty does not waive any of your rights. A plea of not guilty does not prevent a plea of guilty or nolo contendere at a later time.
The difference between a plea of guilty and nolo contendere is that the nolo contendere plea may not later be used against you in a civil suit for damages. For example, in a civil suit arising from a traffic crash, a guilty plea can be used as evidence of your responsibility or fault.
Fines, Costs, and Fees
The amount of the fine assessed by the court is determined by the facts and circumstances of the case. Mitigating circumstances may lower the fine, and aggravating circumstances may increase the fine. The maximum fine amount allowed for most traffic violations is $200; for most other violations of State law and city ordinances is $500; for fire safety, health and sanitation violations is $2,000.
Courts are required by the laws of the State of Texas to collect court costs and fees. Because costs vary for different offenses, check with the court for the amount of costs that will be assessed for the violation with which you are charged. If you go to trial, you may have to pay the cost of overtime paid to a peace officer spent testifying at trial. If you request a jury trial and are convicted, a $3 jury fee is assessed. If a warrant was served or processed, a $50 warrant fee is also assessed. If you do not pay the whole fine and costs within 30 days of the court’s judgment, you must pay an additional $15 time payment fee.
Court cost are only assessed if you are found guilty at trial, if you plead guilty or nolo contendere, or if you are granted deferred disposition or a driving safety course. If you a found not guilty or the case is dismissed, court costs are not assessed.
If you need a continuance, you must put the request in writing with your reason for your request and submit it to the court prior to trial. You may request a continuance for the following reasons:
1) A religious holy day where the tenets of your religious organization prohibit member from participating in secular activities such as court proceedings (you must file an affidavit with the court stating this information)
2) You feel it is necessary for justice in your case.
3) By agreement of the parties (you and the prosecutor)
The Judge decided whether or not to grant the continuance. Failure to submit the request in writing may cause your request to be denied.
If you choose to have the case tried before a jury, you have the right to question jurors about their qualifications to hear your case. If you think that a juror will not be fair, impartial, or unbiased, you may ask the Judge to excuse the juror. You are also permitted to strike three members of the jury panel for any reason you choose, except a strike based solely upon race or gender.
As in all criminal trials, the trial begins with each party given an opportunity to make an opening argument. Then the State presents its case first by calling witnesses to testify against you.
You then have the right to cross-examine the State’s witnesses. You may not, however, argue with the witnesses. Cross-examination must be in the form of questions.
After the prosecution has rested, you may present your case. You have the right to call witnesses who know anything about the incident. The State has the right to cross-examine the witnesses that you call.
If you so desire, you may testify on your own behalf, but as a defendant, you may not be compelled to testify. If is your choice, and your silence cannot be used against you. If you do testify, the State has the right to cross-examine you.
After all testimony is concluded, both sides can make a closing argument. This is your opportunity to summarize the evidence, present your theory of the case, argue why the State has failed to meet its burden of proof, and make other arguments allowed by law. The State has the right to present the first and last arguments.
In determining the defendant’s guilt or innocence, the Judge or Jury may consider only the testimony of witnesses and evidence admitted during the trial. The Judge or Jury must find the defendant guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
You may elect the Jury to assess the fine if you are convicted. If you do not file an election before the trial begins, the Judge will assess the fine. You should be prepared to pay the fine and costs or post an appeal bond if you are convicted.