Your Day in Municipal Court

 Dietze and Davis, P.C. Managing Shareholder and Town of Superior Municipal Court Judge

For most people, municipal court is the only personal connection they have with the judicial system.  Municipal courts deal with cases which involve code and building violations, animal offenses, and some petty and misdemeanor crimes.  Most often, appearances in municipal court are for traffic infractions.  I am sure that many of us have waited in a municipal court holding our speeding tickets and wondering what is going to happen! 

I began my career as a defense attorney, often appearing in municipal courts.  For the past 14 years, I have been a prosecutor in municipal courts.  More recently, I was appointed to the bench as a municipal court judge.  I hope this article is helpful to people who are faced with an appearance in municipal court by discussing what to expect.  This discussion is not intended to cover areas such as defenses or strategies, and assumes that the defendant has chosen to appear in court, as opposed to accepting a mail in plea offer.

Defendants are ordered to appear in municipal court by receiving a ticket.  On the ticket there is usually a date, time and location for the defendant’s first court appearance.  This appearance is known as an arraignment, and is intended to advise the defendant of the charges against them.  When a defendant arrives at court, they should check in with the court staff.  They will then be shown to the courtroom to await arraignment.

Arraignments are usually done in groups of defendants.  The judge will enter the courtroom and advise the group of their rights.  These rights include the right to trial, the right to remain silent, and to engage the services of an attorney.  The advisement can be lengthy, but it is essential that the defendants understand their rights and that the judge is confident that defendants have such an understanding. 

After the general advisement is given, the judge will usually begin calling cases individually.  When a defendant’s name is called, they will approach a podium and face the judge.  The judge will then tell the defendant what they are charged with, and ask them to enter a plea of either not guilty, guilty or no contest (also called nolo contendre, and which is treated like a plea of guilty).  In some courts, the judge may also ask the defendant if they wish to have a pre-trial meeting with the prosecuting attorney.  Often, this is done at arraignment, and a defendant who wishes to speak with the prosecutor will be shown to a meeting room.  In other courts, a pre-trial conference will be set for a later date, at which time the defendant and prosecutor will discuss the case.

In either of these pre-trial conference processes, the goal of the prosecutor and defendant is to attempt to reach a disposition of the case.  This might involve pleading guilty to a lesser charge.  Prosecutors consider a wide variety of factors in deciding if to offer a plea bargain, including the defendant’s previous record.  If a plea bargain is reached, the defendant will return to the courtroom to enter the plea and be sentenced by the judge.  The judge will also invite the defendant to say something on their behalf prior to sentencing.  After such comments from thedefendant, the judge will impose a sentence, which can be a fine, community service, classes, and in some cases, jail.            

At arraignment, a defendant may also plead not guilty and set the matter for trial.  In this situation, the judge will choose a trial date within 90 days of the acceptance of the not guilty plea.  A trial is a separate proceeding, usually before the same judge who presided at the defendant’s arraignment.  The details of trials are beyond the scope of this article, but in general, the prosecution must prove the elements of the infraction beyond a reasonable doubt.  A defendant may be represented by counsel, cross examine witnesses and testify on their own behalf if they so choose. 

Appearing in court can be a stressful experience.  Most courts understand this and will try to make the situation as comfortable as possible.  Court staff is accustomed to defendants’ concerns and will provide as much information as they can to make the process understandable and perhaps, a bit less stressful.