Preparing for Court

If you are appearing in court without the aid of an attorney, you are what the court refers to as a pro se [pro'say] litigant.  This simply means that you are "appearing for yourself." You may be a little apprehensive due to your lack of familiarity with courtroom procedure and formalities. The following information is designed to give you some basic information about the procedure that will be followed in the courtroom. The information provided here is very general and may not apply the same in each individual case.

Criminal / Traffic Cases

Criminal and traffic cases are called prosecutions. The parties involved are always a state or city prosecutor and yourself. 

Your Rights
Due process in a criminal or traffic case offers you certain protections:
  • You have a right to be represented by an attorney (including an appointed attorney if you are indigent and being tried for a crime for which you could be jailed).
  • You have the right to a trial.
  • You have the right to require the prosecutor to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt - you do not have to prove your innocence.
  • You have the right to be present during the trial and cross examine, or question, the witnesses called against you.
  • You have the right to subpoena your own witnesses into court.
  • You enjoy a privilege against self incrimination; no one can make you testify, but if you choose to do so you will be treated as any other witness.
Trial Stages
Generally speaking, the trial is divided into five stages:
  • Opening statements
  • The prosecutor's case-in-chief
  • Your case-in-chief
  • The prosecutor's rebuttal case
  • Closing arguments
Opening Statements
Opening statements are not evidence and are simply statements given by the opposing sides to give the court a roadmap of the evidence that the parties anticipate will be presented at trial.
Prosecutor's Case-in-Chief
The prosecutor's case-in-chief begins the presentation of the evidence in a case. The prosecutor calls witnesses one at a time.  The witnesses are sworn and give testimony in response to questions from the prosecutor. The prosecutor may also introduce exhibits through the witnesses. This initial questioning of the witnesses is called direct examination. 

Following direct examination of the witness, you have the opportunity to cross examine the witness. Cross examination is a time for you to ask questions of the witness, not a time to make statements or argue with the witness. You may introduce exhibits through cross examination of the prosecutor's witnesses if you wish. When you are finished with cross examination, the prosecutor has the opportunity to conduct redirect examination of the witness - that is, to ask followup questions to your cross examination of the witness. This process repeats itself for each witness until the prosecutor is finished presenting his or her case. When that happens, the prosecutor rests or ends its case.

You have a decision to make after the prosecutor rests. You have no obligation to testify or present a case. If you choose, however, to present a case, you would present your case-in-chief in the same manner as the prosecutor. That is, you would call witnesses, examine them, have them subjected to cross examination, and then redirect examination. You would introduce exhibits, if any, through your witnesses. If you choose to testify, you lose your privilege against self-incrimination and will be subject to cross examination as any other witness. This process would continue, one witness at a time, until you were finished presenting your case. Then you would rest your case.
Prosecutor's Rebuttal Case
Following your case-in-chief, the prosecutor has the opportunity to present a rebuttal case.  That is to call more witnesses to rebut anything you may have raised in your case-in-chief. The process works the same as the prosecutor's case-in-chief. The prosecutor gets the opportunity to present a rebuttal case because the prosecutor bears the burden of proof and must actually prove your guilt whereas you need not prove anything.
Closing Arguments
At the conclusion of the prosecutor's rebuttal case, both parties are given the opportunity to present closing arguments.  Closing arguments are not evidence. They are simply arguments designed to help the court make a decision.  In closing argument, you would argue the facts and law as to why you should be found not guilty. The prosecutor argues first, then you argue, then the prosecutor has the opportunity to make a final rebuttal argument. The case is then submitted to the court for decision.