by Jay Anthony
The old saying goes that one who represents himself has a fool for a client. That’s probably true for a serious offense, such as DUI, but when you’re faced with a lesser charge and fine you might plausibly argue that it’s more foolish to pay a lawyer’s fee. Should you find yourself in such a position, a little know-how will help you to appear effectively.
To begin with, examine your copy of the ticket. It will tell you where and when you need to appear. It will also state the statute or ordinance the officer claims you violated. Look it up online; this is what the prosecutor must prove.
Depending on the court, you may be prosecuted by the officer or by a solicitor. If the latter, you’ll be contacted ahead of the trial date and, if you’re not hard set on a not-guilty verdict, see if the solicitor will negotiate. He may be willing to lower your fine, substitute community service, or drop to a lesser charge. If you’ll be prosecuted by an officer, negotiations will usually have to wait for when youappear at court.
On the appointed day, you should appear at court to enter your plea. Be sure to dress appropriately and be polite. If the officer is not present or, in a wreck case, or if the other driver does not show, you should ask that the charges be dismissed. Without the officer’s testimony it’s very unlikely that your guilt can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. If the officer or driver is present, you should plead not guilty and request a trial. While you have the right to request a jury trial, you may prefer a bench trial in front of the judge instead. The trial process will be the same and, if your case rests on a complex question of law, you may feel safer placing the matter before the judge. Keep in mind that if you do request a jury trial, then you’ll need to participate in jury selection, a relatively simple process.
For the day of trial, prepare an opening and closing statement. Your opening should be simple: state the law, emphasize that the prosecutor has the burden of proof, give a short summary of your testimony and explain why your actions were legal. Following opening statements, the prosecutor will present his case first and the officer will testify. When your turn comes, cross examine the officer, politely asking questions to expose any weaknesses in his case.
Once the prosecution rests, you’ll have the opportunity to present your testimony, which the judge will allow you to do in a narrative form. Present your case favorably, but keep in mind that the prosecution will cross examine you, so don’t overreach. If you’re caught in a lie, your credibility is shot.
Finally, deliver a simple and un-dramatic closing argument highlighting the strengths of your case and the weaknesses in the prosecution. Be sure to repeatedly point out that the prosecutor has the burden of proof.
Be prepared and act professionally and, whatever the verdict, you’ll be nobody’s fool.
Jay Anthony is a graduate of the University of South Carolina School of Law. After graduation, Jay served as a law clerk to Justice Costa M. Pleicones of the Supreme Court of South Carolina and now practices with the firm of Love, Thornton, Arnold & Thomasonin Greenville.