How to Navigate Municipal Court / Do I Really Need a Lawyer?
So, you get a speeding ticket for going 40 in a 25 mph zone. Next thing you know, you receive a dozen letters in the mail from attorneys trying to scare you into hiring them. These letters are predictable in their approach.
"You risk a loss of license and/or imprisonment."
... or ....
"This could have a profound affect on your auto insurance premiums."
The first thing you should do is treat the letters as you would treat unsolicited mail offering extended warranties for your car - throw them away. Of course, if you wish to engage an attorney based on how scary the letter sounds or how quickly it arrives after the citation, then by all means hire that lawyer!
How did these lawyers find you? They hire services that scour police records and identify people who have been involved in accidents or who have been issued citations. Those services then send out mass mailings to hundreds of motorists each week with the hope that 1-2% of those letters result in clients. Technology is often a wonderful tool, but sometimes, it just results in annoying, unsolicited junk mail.
DO I EVEN NEED TO HIRE AN ATTORNEY?
The first thing you should do is call an attorney - hopefully based on a personal reference (or maybe a blog post) - to determine if you even NEED an attorney.
If you were cited for a minor traffic offense - e.g., careless driving, exceeding the speed limit by 15-20 mph - you may not need a lawyer. Go to Municipal Court, speak with the prosecutor and see if the prosecutor will plea bargain with you by reducing the speed or points. If you don't have a satisfactory experience with the prosecutor, ask the prosecutor for an adjournment, so you can consult with an attorney. If you resolve your case, you've just saved yourself the cost of having an attorney resolve it for you.
If you were cited with a traffic offense which may result in the suspension of your driving privileges, and there are too many such offenses to list here, then you should consult with an attorney.
HOW DOES MUNICIPAL COURT WORK?
Generally, there are two appearances for Municipal Court matters.
The first appearance is usually listed on the ticket. Where the citation is of modest severity, you can often call the court before the first appearance and enter a "not guilty" plea over the phone to save yourself time spent in court. If the charge is more serious, the Court will require you to appear personally to hear the charges read, to have your rights read to you and to enter a plea of "not guilty." Should you go to a first appearance, there are only two words you need to know - not guilty. Court personnel will then schedule your second appearance. The prosecutor will generally not plea bargain with you at the first appearance because he or she will often times not even have your file.
The second appearance is your chance to speak with the prosecutor to try to resolve your case. If it is resolved, the plea bargain will be placed on the record and a judge will impose a sentence (e.g., fine, license suspension, etc...) If the matter is not resolved at the second appearance, the judge will either hold a trial that day or schedule trial for another day.
The prosecutor and the judge know that more than 99% of all cases are resolved before trial. Both are part-time employees and neither has the time to hold a trial over every citation that is issued. So, plea bargaining is not only encouraged, but it is the norm in Municipal Court. There are some types of cases - notably DWI and drug offenses - where the prosecutor is forbiden from entering into plea negotiations. However, in all cases, the prosecutors are given discretion to fashion a fair result.
Should you have a matter pending before a Municipal Court and have any questions, feel free to call the firm.