Court Process Overview
Entering a Plea
You must decide upon and enter a plea to the charge against you on or before the response date on your citation. If you signed a citation in front of an officer, you did not plead guilty, but only signed a promise to appear in court within 20 business days. There are three possible pleas to a complaint: Guilty, Nolo Contendere (No Contest), or Not Guilty.
Your decision on what plea to enter is the most important decision you will have to make. Whether you feel that you are guilty or not, we suggest that you read the following explanations of all three types of pleas before making your decision.
By a plea of guilty, you admit that you committed the act charged, that the act is prohibited by law, and that you have no defense for your act. Before entering your plea of guilty, you should understand the following:
- The state has the burden of proving its case against you. The law does not require you to prove anything. You have the right to hear the state's evidence and to require it to prove its case against you.
- If you were involved in a traffic accident at the time of the alleged offense, your plea of guilty could be used later in a civil suit for damages as an admission that you were at fault or were the party responsible for the accident.
A plea of "nolo contendere" (no contest) means you do not contest the state's charge against you. You will be found guilty upon a plea of "nolo contendere," but it is not an admission by you that you are guilty. Also, a plea of "nolo contendere" or "no contest" cannot be used against you in a civil suit for damages as can a plea of guilty.
A plea of guilty or "nolo contendere" and a waiver of jury trial may be entered in writing by mail before the trial date. You should be prepared to pay your fine upon entering a plea of guilty or "nolo contendere."
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 what it has charged against you.
If you plead not guilty, you have the right to a trial by judge or jury. You will need to decide whether to employ a lawyer to represent you at trial. You may defend yourself (Pro Se), but no one except a lawyer may represent you.
All proceedings will be conducted according to the rules of criminal procedure and the rules of evidence. If you choose to represent yourself Pro Se, you must be prepared.
Innocent until Proven Guilty
Under our American system of justice, all persons are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. On a plea of not guilty, a trial is held and the state is required to prove what it charges in the complaint, "beyond a reasonable doubt," before a guilty verdict can be reached.
Under Texas law, you can be brought to trial only after a formal complaint is filed. The complaint is the charging document that alleges what you have done, and the fact that such action is unlawful. You can be tried only for what is alleged in the complaint. Trials are conducted under the Code of Criminal Procedure as adopted by the Texas legislature. These laws may be found in Chapter 45 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.
- You have the right to inspect the complaint before trial and have it read to you at the trial itself.
- You are entitled to hear all testimony introduced against you.
- You have a right to cross-examine any witness who testifies against you.
- You have the right to testify in your own behalf. You also have the right not to testify. If you choose not to testify, your refusal cannot be considered in determining your innocence or guilt of the charge.
- You may call witnesses to testify in your behalf at the trial, and have the right to have the court issue subpoenas to these witnesses to ensure their appearance at the trial.
Presenting the Case
As in all criminal trials, the State will present its case first by calling witnesses to testify against you. You will have the right to cross-examine each prosecution witness. In other words, you can ask the witness questions about their testimony. 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 if you testify.
After the state has presented its case, you may present your case. You have the right to call any witness who knows anything about the incident, but the witnesses can testify only about matters of which they have personal knowledge.
If you choose, you may testify in your own behalf. Since you are the defendant, you cannot be compelled to testify. It is your choice, you may do as you wish, and your silence cannot be used against you.
The state also has the right to cross-examine all witnesses called by you. If you testify in your own behalf, the state may cross-examine.
After testimony is concluded by both sides, you can make a closing argument by telling the court why you feel that you are not guilty of the offense charged. But such statement can only be based on the testimony heard during the trial. Additional testimony is not admissible in the closing argument.
The verdict will be based on the testimony and the facts presented during the trial. In making the determination, the judge or jury can only consider the testimony of the witnesses who testify under oath. If found not guilty, you will be acquitted of the charges. If you are found guilty, the judge will announce the penalty at that time.
The amount of fine assessed by the court is affected only by the facts and circumstances of the case. Mitigating circumstances may lower the fine, even if you are found guilty. On the other hand, aggravating circumstances may increase the fine. In no case may the fine exceed $200 for most traffic violations; $500 for certain penal code violations, and $200 to $2,000 for certain city ordinance violations. (These amounts do not include state court costs.)
Court costs will be charged if you are found guilty and assessed a fine, regardless of the amount. Court costs in the municipal court are set by the state, not by the court. Court costs must also be charged even if the fine is suspended and final disposition of your case is dismissed under the Deferred Disposition procedure. If an arrest warrant is issued, a warrant fee of $50 will be added to the fine and state court costs.