In North Carolina, criminal cases are heard in one of two courts—district court or superior court.
In short, district court is the court in which most misdemeanor and low-level felony crimes are tried. Most minor criminal offenses and infractions are heard in this court room. Traffic tickets, citations, infractions, basic possession charges, DWI, assault, larceny, shoplifting, trespassing, underage drinking, etc.
Superior court is where more serious crimes and appeals from district court are heard. Although it’s best practice to avoid criminal charges altogether, you would rather find yourself in district court than superior court.
Whether in superior or district court, certain rules of courtroom etiquette are applicable from the moment you wake up on the day of court. While it’s always advisable to check with your attorney if you have questions, the following may serve as a Defendant’s basic guideline for making an appearance in a district court in the state of North Carolina. With any luck, these steps will help you succeed in court.
Step 1: FIX YOUR DETERMINATION.
Determine that you will attend all court dates. Failure to appear at the appointed time and place will most likely result in an arrest warrant being issued. Arrest warrants can be awkward, to say the least. It is advisable to hire an attorney to prevent this. If there is an emergency or you are unable to attend court, let your attorney know as soon as possible.
Step 2: GET YOUR MIND RIGHT.
On the day of court, be sober. Prescribed medications are fine, but only if taken as prescribed. Any appearance of intoxication will not help your case, regardless of any explanation.
Step 3: LOOK LIKE YOU RESPECT YOURSELF.
It’s true. You do have a first amendment right to free speech, but it doesn’t need to be exercised at the courthouse, via your t-shirt. For example, t-shirts with large weed leaves on them are in fact legal to possess and wear. Even in court. However, said t-shirt will not help your case—which is what this is all about. On the day of court, wear proper, respectful attire. Respectful attire can be defined in many ways, but typically speaking, whether male or female, the appearance of respect is not about the amount of money you spend on your outfit. It is about how you carry and present yourself, considering your circumstances and means. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.
While it’s true there are some grey areas when it comes to defining respectful attire, there are many clear “no-no’s” that every Defendant should be aware of. Visible underwear is frowned upon by everyone involved, more so when the offending article of clothing is clearly not freshly laundered. Men should avoid sandals of any sort. Shorts do not belong in court. If you would wear the outfit to a nightclub, don’t wear it in court. Basic grooming and hygiene should not be avoided before court, circumstances permitting.
Step 4: GET YOUR POSSESSIONS RIGHT.
Before you leave the house, take any drugs or weapons off of your person. Double check for little stashes you forgot you had. You will be searched immediately by law enforcement upon entering the courthouse. Once you’re in line to go through security, it’s too late to try running out the back to ditch the dime bag you just realized was in your pocket. Double check before you leave the house. The same goes for defensive weapons otherwise legal to carry. For example, be sure you don’t leave a concealed firearm in your handbag. Ladies, check that purse one more time. Just in case. Gentlemen, no pocket knives.
Step 5: ACT RIGHT.
On the way to the courthouse, leave early. In most counties, you really need to be standing on the courthouse steps at 8:00 AM (they will start court without you and that’s a quick way to a warrant for your arrest–hiring an attorney will prevent this concern). Report immediately to your courtroom, being careful to listen for instructions from those in positions of authority. If you have hired an attorney, let it be known at the appropriate time. You will know when this time comes even if you don’t see your attorney there when you arrive. Depending on the size of the county in which you are attending court, a criminal defense attorney is likely to have multiple cases, in multiple courtrooms on the same day. Don’t worry. Your attorney will be there. He or she is probably not running late. Oftentimes, attorneys are required to prioritize which cases they address first on a given day, based on rules that regulate the local process. Note that your attorney has no control over this.
Step 6: KNOW WHO’S IN CHARGE.
The man or woman who sits on the tallest bench, in the front of the courtroom, wearing the black robe, is the judge. This person ultimately controls your fate. Be respectful to judges and they will respect you. Remember, the judge is the “court” for all immediate intents and purposes. Therefore, what you say to this person will have a major impact on the outcome of your case. Accordingly, allow your attorney to handle all interactions with the judge. If asked a direct question by the judge, answer it, but do not ramble or complain. If a judge asks you a questions, he is not handing you a microphone.
The Sheriff’s deputies standing in the courtroom, not far from the judge, are referred to as bailiffs. While you may spot a lone bailiff occasionally, they customarily work in teams or packs. Typically speaking, like judges, bailiffs are polite when shown deference and respect. It is important to note that they are not lawyers and do not like to be asked questions meant for lawyers or many questions at all for that matter. By nature (and the rules), bailiffs become agitated by many things, including, but not limited to, folks talking too loudly, talking back to the judge, wearing hats, or having their underwear showing. Depending on your location, cell phones may also be considered contraband by said bailiffs. If you are a criminal Defendant (which you are if you’re required to be there), approach any bailiff you encounter in his or her natural element with caution, if at all. It is best practice to allow your attorney to handle interaction with law enforcement as much as possible.
The prosecutor is the attorney for the state. The prosecutor’s job consists of trying to prove that you are guilty of the crime alleged. The prosecutor is not your attorney and does not like to be asked questions best reserved for your attorney or questions to which you would know the answer if you were on time to court. Much like law enforcement, interaction with the prosecutor is best left to your attorney. If you find yourself face to face with a prosecutor, upon questioning be respectful and inform them that you have an attorney. If you do not have an attorney, proceed with extreme caution, remembering not to lie about your record. They have a copy on file in the courtroom or can readily obtain a copy. What you say to this person will have a major impact on the outcome of your case.
Step 7: GET RIGHT WITH YOUR LAWYER.
Make sure you and your attorney are on the same page. Lawyers hate surprises in court because they’re rarely the good kind. You’re hiring an attorney for help, so make sure you tell them everything in order to avoid surprises. Depending on the nature of the allegations against you, it is advisable to meet with your attorney before the day of court.
If you decide to proceed without the assistance of an attorney, upon questioning, keep your story short, straight, consistent, and simple. Honesty is the best policy.
Step 8: GET RIGHT WITH THE LAW.
If charged with a crime, summoned to court or otherwise required to be there, you must handle it, despite any anxiety or fear you may have. These things don’t just “go away.” It is always advisable to hire a qualified local attorney when dealing with the criminal justice system in North Carolina. By its nature, the law can be confusing, and the implications of a conviction may have a far-reaching impact on your rights, privileges, everyday life, or employment.
Step 9: FAIL SAFE.
If you cannot obtain an attorney or just don’t think you need one, remember the Golden rule of any courthouse. Speak respectfully and proceed with caution.
The information contained herein is not intended as legal advice. Each person’s case is unique and should be reviewed by a qualified attorney to receive legal advice. To discuss your case, contact Atlantic Coast Law at (910) 769-6884.