This is possibly your first experience in any court. The purpose of the following is to help you understand the court proceedings. Our desire is to have every person leave this Court assured that he or she has had a fair and impartial trial.
Justice of the Peace Courts try misdemeanor criminal cases, including traffic violations for which no jail sentence is a part of the punishment. These trials are conducted under the laws found in the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.
REMEMBER: The motorist is not always right; that is why we have officers. The officer is not always right; that is why we have courts. If you disagree with the court ruling, you have the right to appeal.
Before Court Begins
On or before the court date noted on your citation you must enter a plea to the charge against you. If you signed the citation in front of an officer, you did not plead guilty, but only signed a promise to appear in court by the date noted on the citation. There are three possible pleas to a complaint:
"Nolo Contendere"' and,
Under our American system of justice, all persons are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. On a plea of not guilty, a formal trial is held. As in all criminal trials, the State is required to prove the violation charged in the complaint "beyond a reasonable doubt" before a defendant can be found guilty by a judge or jury. Your decision concerning which plea to enter is very important. You should read the following explanations of all three types of pleas and think carefully before making your decision.
Plea of Guilty/Plea of Nolo Contendere
Plea of Guilty
By a plea of guilty, you admit that the act is prohibited by law and that you committed the act charged. Ignorance of the law is never a defense. However, before entering your plea of guilty, you should understand that a plea of guilty may be used against you in a civil suit.
Plea of Nolo Contendere
A plea of nolo contendere simply means that you do not contest the State's charge against you. You will almost certainly be found guilty upon a plea of nolo contendere, but it is not an admission by you that you are guilty. A plea of nolo contendere cannot be used against you in a civil suit for damages as can a plea of guilty.
You should be prepared to pay your fine when you enter a plea of guilty or nolo contendere. You should ask the Clerk in what manner the Court will accept payment.
Plea of Not Guilty
A plea of not guilty means that you are informing the Court that you deny guilt in this case and that the State must prove the violation it has charged against you.
You may plead not guilty and take your case before the Court for trial if you believe that:
you are not guilty;
you have a good defense; or,
the State cannot prove its case.
If you plead not guilty, you will need to decide whether to employ a lawyer to represent you or to defend yourself at trial. No one but yourself or a licensed lawyer may represent you. In Justice Court you are not entitled to a court appointed attorney.
Should you decide to plead not guilty, you have the right to a full, fair, open trial as in any other court. The following will aid you to understand trial procedure and the manner of presenting your case.
Under Texas law, you can be brought to trial only after a formal complaint is filed against you. A complaint is the instrument which alleges what you are supposed to have done, and the fact that such action is unlawful. You can be tried only for what is alleged in this complaint.
You have the right to be represented by an attorney.
You have the right to inspect this complaint before trial and have it read to you at the trial itself.
You have the right to have your case tried before a jury, if you elect.
You are entitled to hear all testimony introduced against you.
You have the right to cross-examine any witness who testifies against you.
You have the right to remain silent. If you choose not to testify, this cannot be used against you in determining your innocence or guilt of the charge. You have the right to testify in your behalf.
You may call witnesses to testify in your behalf at the trial, and you may have the Court issue subpoenas to these witnesses to ensure their appearance at the trial.
For more information, please see Justice Court Criminal Trial Procedures.
Presenting the Case
As in all criminal trials, the State will present its case first by calling witnesses to testify against you. After each prosecution witness has finished his testimony, you will have the right to cross-examine the witness. In other words, you can ask the witness questions about sworn testimony or any other facts relevant to the case. However, you cannot argue with the witness. Your cross-examination of the witness must be in the form of questions only. Do not attempt to tell your version of the incident at this time. You will have an opportunity to do so later in the trial. After the prosecution has presented its case, you may present your case. You have the right to call any witness who knows anything about the incident. If you so desire, you may testify in your behalf. Because you are the defendant, you cannot be compelled to testify. It is your choice, and your silence cannot be used against you. If you do testify, try to be fair and calm. Particularly, tell the truth and do not try to avoid answering any questions. The prosecution also has the right to cross-examine all witnesses you call. If you testify in your behalf, the prosecution may cross-examine you. After all testimony is concluded, both sides can make a closing argument. This is your opportunity to tell the Court why you think you are not guilty of the offense charged. The closing argument can only be based on the testimony heard during the trial.
If the case is tried by the judge alone, the judge's decision is called a judgment. If the case if tried by a jury, the jury's decision is called a verdict. In making the determination of guilty or not guilty at the end of the trial, the Judge or jury can only consider the testimony of witnesses made during the trial under oath and any written evidence submitted under the court's rulings. If you are found guilty, the Judge will announce the penalty at that time. Unless you plan to appeal your case, you should be prepared to pay the fine at this time.
The amount of the fine the Court assesses is affected by the facts and circumstances of the case. Mitigating circumstances may lower the fine, even if you are guilty. On the other hand, aggravating circumstances may increase the fine. Fines may vary but are set according to applicable laws.
In addition to a fine, other court costs mandated by law may be charged. However, there can be additional fees depending on the circumstances of the case. Court costs will be assessed if you are found guilty and a fine is imposed, or if the court defers final disposition of your case. If you are found not guilty, no court costs will be assessed.
Right to Appeal
If you are not satisfied with the judgment of the Court, you have the right to appeal your case to County Court. To appeal, you must file an appeal bond with the Justice of the Peace within 10 days from the date of judgment. In County Court, you will have a new trial before another judge or jury. That is, the entire case is tried anew in the County Court as if it had never been tried in the Justice Court.
Defensive Driving Courses
You may be able to require that one traffic citation be dismissed by taking an approved driving safety course. HOWEVER, you may lose that right if you do not provide written notice of your desire to do so and a plea of guilty or no contest to the Court on or before the appearance date (as shown on your citation).
A CHARGE MAY BE DISMISSED BY COMPLETING A DRIVING SAFETY COURSE IF:
The alleged speed was not 95 miles per hour or more; or 25 mph or more above the posted speed limit:
The offense did not occur in a construction zone when workers were present
You have not used this option during the 12 months preceding the offense date and you are not in the process of using this option for another offense and that you have not completed a course which is not reflected on your driving record
You have a valid Texas Driver License, Permit or current Military I.D.
You provide the court with proof of financial responsibility (Liability Insurance) that complies with State law
You provide the court with a certified copy of your driving record from DPS which shows you have not received a dismissal under these terms within the last 12 months
You do not hold a Commercial Driver License