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By Ariel Rief, Esq.

Speaking with the Judge

Representing yourself "pro per" in a criminal case can be a smart way to save yourself thousands of dollars if you avoid these 3 big mistakes.


Now here are 3 tips to get you started:


1. Figure out the correct courthouse.


This first step may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people mess this up and get a warrant for their arrest because they missed court. And don't rely on the paperwork the police provide you telling you when and where to go to courtit's not uncommon for the information to be wrong.


To confirm where you’re supposed to go, depending on the county, you may be able to figure it out by simply searching for your case on a county’s superior court website. 


Unfortunately, the information is often unavailable online. So you’ll need to resort to the next step of calling the Criminal Clerk’s Office of the county. It's best to call first thing in the morning. A lot of Clerk’s Offices stop answering phones by 2:30 or 3:00.


Also, it’s well worth mentioning that the Clerk’s Office may not see your case. If that happens, that means the District Attorney’s Office has not yet filed criminal charges against you. There’s often a lag between the time of your arrest and the time your case actually gets filed in court. So it's better to wait a few weeks before calling the Clerk's Office.


A final step is to call the DA’s Office directly and ask the receptionist whether their office is filing charges or decided to reject prosecution.


Ultimately, with a few phone calls, you should generally be able to gain clarity about when and when your court date is.


2. Find out the specific courtroom beforehand, too.


The second step is a corollary to the first step: don’t just know the right courthouse; know the specific courtroom (aka “department”), too. Showing up to court and finding the right department you’re in can be confusing for everyone, including the lawyers, so don’t be overconfident that you’ll easily figure it out.


You need to appear cool, calm, and collected in front of the judge. Running around the morning of your court date frantically searching for the correct courtroom is not a way to kick things off. Do yourself a favor by learning where things are in advance. And if that’s not possible, at the very least show up super early so you can find the correct courtroom without the added pressure of being late.


3. Observe a "Pretrial Conference Calendar" before your court date, if possible. And bring a notepad.


Don't underestimate how valuable a little reconnaissance can be. Observing how courts handle cases similar to your own can pay big dividends in your preparation. They offer a critical opportunity to learn the lay of the land and can give you a window into what to expect before you try to navigate your case in court.


By observing a “calendar” of cases similar to your own, you’ll quickly pick up on the pattern of how cases are being handled and learn the range of what's normal.


For example, if you watch a judge sentence four different defendants in DUI cases and 3 of them got somewhere between 2 and 5 days of Sheriff Work Program in lieu of jail time, but the fourth guy got sentenced to 180 days in jail, then you can safely say that the range of jail (or days on the Work Program) for a basic case is probably 2-5 days and the guy who got 180 days probably had some extreme things going on (such as prior DUI cases on his record). Thus if your case is a first-offense DUI without serious issues, then you can now more confidently negotiate when you know roughly what you face in this particular county and courthouse.


Ultimately, doing a little "recon" at court can provide a big benefit for pro per defendants by empowering them with necessary knowledge without the need to pay for a high-priced criminal lawyer.

For a FREE consultation and more tips when representing yourself in a criminal case, click here.

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