Your Day in Court: A Public Service Announcement

Court rules 2
Common Rules in a Middle Tennessee County Courthouse

I’ve been a probation officer for going on 14 years and have served in many different Criminal, Circuit, General Sessions, and Municipal courts.  I’m wise enough to know I haven’t seen it all and experienced enough to know there are very few human behaviors or actions that will shock or surprise me.  But because I continue to see repeated patterns of courtroom behavior that seem far outside the realm of common sense, I decided to offer some advice to those of you who have never or don’t often see the inside of a real courtroom.  If you don’t already know it, they bear small resemblance to the ones you see on TV.

Now I know I’m a member of a vast and sophisticated, educated, law-abiding group of fine, upstanding e-citizens endowed with bottomless stores of smarts and common sense and that most of you will never commit (would never even think of committing!) any act that might cause you to be called to court.  Nevertheless, hear me out.  After all, accidents do happen.

So you’ve been called to court.  You hardly understand why.  Maybe you were driving down the road at or just below the speed limit because you’re a conscientious driver when all of a sudden those blue lights sprang to life in your reaerview, your heart revved up to 150 – 200 BPM, you tasted that bilious spit at the back of your suddenly-dehydrated tongue, and panic set in.  You rolled down the window, and the officer informed you he pulled you over because your taillight was out, but then he detected a faint whiff of marijuana wafting from your window, so he asked if he could search your vehicle.  Clueless, scared shitless but helpfully compliant, you granted permission knowing there was nothing illegal in your vehicle.  Except the half-empty baggy of funky-smelling, green leafy substance and the strange-looking pipe that your roommate’s shady friend, the one you gave a ride three weeks ago and haven’t seen or heard from since, must have forgotten he left tucked way up under the passenger seat.

Or maybe a friendly argument with your spouse got out of hand, and a concerned neighbor called the police.  Maybe the obtrusive old widow who lives across the street got worried when she saw you stumble down your driveway, pee on your mailbox, then pass out with your head inches from the curb, so she called an ambulance, and the EMTs called the police as they’re obligated to do when they discovered you were highly inebriated and lying half in the public roadway, where you’d rolled, semi-conscious, trying to evade the puddle of vomit you’d spewed.  Maybe you locked yourself out of your house so called 911, and the pissed-off police officer wrote you a ticket for misuse of emergency services.

Do those scenarios sound farfetched, too funny to be true?  I have witnessed all of them and dozens of others like them countless times.  When it does happen to you, I assure you it won’t be funny.

Whatever caused you to have to appear in court, here you are.  Take another look at the picture of Court Rules at the top of this post.  Yes, those are actual rules Scotch-taped to a real courtroom door.  What?  You think they look tacky and amateurish and that surely a 21st-century court would have much more professional-looking rules posted?  Maybe a Website you could visit beforehand to prepare yourself?  While such may be the case in wealthier, more cosmopolitan, large urban judicial districts, what you see here is similar to what hangs in innumerable courthouses throughout rural America.  Why, you wonder?  Lack of money, of course, because Americans have grown weary of paying taxes to support their government institutions.  But that’s a whole ‘nother issue for a much later post.

You may find it strange that those rules have to be posted, that people have to be told they must to come to court wearing suitable attire and to not bring food, beverages, cell phones, or weapons.  Maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “Duhh…That’s just plain common sense!”  Friend, you’d be surprised.  In a minute I’ll tell you about some of the clothes I’ve seen people wear to court and some of the behaviors exhibited in our exalted fortresses of rectitude and solemnity.  But first I’ll tell you why those rules exist: 1) To minimize distractions and delays as the overdocketed Court and insufficient staff attempt to carry out their duties as swiftly and efficiently as possible and preferably no later than by the end of normal business hours; 2) To reduce the risk of physical harm to all present; and 3) To show the Court the respect it’s due.

Here’s a a short list of some of the unsuitable or offensive clothing I’ve seen in the courtroom.  Countless men and women, attractive and un-, young and old, tall and short, fat and skinny, wearing skimpy tank tops, tube tops, halter-tops (yes, men too), short-short skirts, short-short shorts, bikini bottoms and athletic bras, or see-through tops & bottoms with no discernible undergarments.  Unwashed, greasy-haired, rank-smelling men and women of all ages wearing filthy, torn, urine-stained, and beer-smelling jeans and t-shirts advertising all manner of things such as: death-metal bands complete with depiction of upraised middle finger; “Wanna Fuck?”, “Fuck You and the Horse You Rode in On”, “Fuck Me”, “I’m with Fuckin’ Stupid”, “What the Fuck Just Happened”, or “Don’t Judge Me” printed in large block letters; baseball caps and screen-printed t-shirts painted with marijuana plants, whiskey bottles, and beer cans; and I won’t even get into the tattoos on display except to mention the one inked across the ample cleavage of a young woman overflowing her skintight, lowcut pullover: “Guilty” in a beautiful, bold, Gothic font.  Invariably, such sartorial sacrilege leads to the flabbergasted Judge asking some version of the question, “When you woke up this morning knowing you had to come to court, what made you think it was a good idea to wear that?” Often just before he orders the security officer to escort the offending defendant to jail for Contempt of Court.

Regarding courtroom behavior, here are a few scenes I’ve seen played out.  Any names used here are fictional to protect the privacy of the guilty or just plain ignorant.  During an Assault hearing between defendant Lucy , victim Sally, and witness (defendant’s boyfriend, victim’s husband) Winston after Sally caught Winston in Lucy’s bed having sex with Lucy then Lucy allegedly proceeded to beat Sally with a curling iron.  In open court, Lucy curtly informs Sally that Winston wouldn’t have to be sneaking in her back door if Lucy would wash her nasty, smelly old pussy every now and then.  Lucy replies that she happens to have the sweetest pussy in the county.  Overcoming his initial shock, Judge bangs his gavel.  Then Sally says that no, she has it on good authority that she has the sweetest pussy in the county.  The gavel bangs several times as Judge calls loudly for order.  Winston leans in leering, squeezes Lucy’s ass, and loudly proclaims that yes, Lucy does indeed have the sweetest pussy in the county, or at least on their street anyway.  By now the gallery is laughing uncontrollably, and the security guards are having to drag Lucy & Sally away because they’ve begun to slap at each other.

I have lost track of the number of times defendants have shown up so drunk or stoned that they can’t stay awake in court and aren’t competent to stand trial but who plead out anyway because they just want it to be over.  They often have long, confusing, embarrassing, nonsensical but hilarious conversations with the Judge as they try to justify their actions.

I’ve witnessed a man charged with Animal Abuse for beating his pit bull, after telling the Court he trained the dog to attack law enforcement officers who might show up to bust his home meth lab, admit to regularly feeding the dog his daughter’s prescribed Xanax because his training had caused the dog to become so aggressive that he could no longer control it.

I’m sure I’ll rant more about my experiences at work from time to time.  I may even try to silence my gibbering, stentorian inner critic long enough to attempt some short stories about them.  For now, I’ll close with some advice.

If you’re so unfortunate as to be called to court, come prepared mentally, physically, and materially to wait.  Be aware that almost every court in this country is underfunded, understaffed, and overburdened with ridiculously large dockets, and no other defendant present wants to be there any more than you do.  Hell, half the overworked, underpaid district attorneys and public defenders don’t want to be there either.  Be patient.  Do not come to court under the influence of narcotics or other illicit drugs or smelling of alcohol.  Don’t bring a weapon, not even a pocket knife.  Wear decent clothes.  Cover as much of your skin as you can, especially if those tattoos you’re so rightly proud of may be considered offensive to unschooled observers.  Be patient.  Bring a book but not your phone or any food.  When you hear your name called, stand up quickly and loudly answer “Here!” or “Present!”.  Be patient.  Don’t fall asleep.  Don’t wear a hat.  Don’t wear sunglasses.  Be patient.  Do not bring young children.  If you do, keep them quiet.  Be patient.  If a security guard or bailiff addresses you, comply with his instructions and for goodness’ sake DON’T argue with him.  Be patient.  When speaking to the Judge, address him or her as “Your Honor.”  By all means, if you are contemplating a guilty plea or a no contest plea because you just want it to be over with, and especially if you are so foolish as to enter a plea without the benefit of legal counsel, be absolutely sure of what that plea and its consequences mean for your future.

Take care, be well, and I’ll see you in court.

Denny

 

 

30 thoughts on “Your Day in Court: A Public Service Announcement

      1. Ah, no worries friend. In the famous words of Conway Twitty, You got Sonya on your mind is all. LOL Naw, seriously I have been called worse. I have no problem with nick names at all. 😀 We are good and you are forgiven if ya do me a favor and forget all about it. Deal?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hmmm? What’s that? Forget what? Conway Twitty did you say? I live about 20 miles from his home, the former Twitty City, which was recently acquired by the evil organization Trinity Broadcasting Network. Sad. I wonder what Conway would’ve thought about that?

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Very interesting blog here, Denny, and so well written to boot as usual.

    Your description of people’s behavior in court reminded me of my own experience as an adult with the criminal justice system in Howard County, Maryland, where I lived during my teenage and young adult years. I will have to say that my behavior in court was mute, except for agreeing to the judge’s decision. My public defender did all the other talking, but he figures into the story in an other way too.

    I was arrested for possession for a half ounce of marijuana when I was about to turn twenty. I was arrested along with five others, including a girl I had just asked out for the first time. “Hey babe, you want get arrested.” Those actually charge with an offense were all charged separately.

    Now, my thoughts back then are not the same as they are today. Saying this, I thought the whole arrest situation was a blast after the officer found the marijuana on me. Before this I was on pins and needles. They loaded us all onto a van, not a paddy wagon, so we were in contact with each other and the arresting officers at all times. There was a lot of bantering going back and forth with my friends and the officers. This continued at the police station. Of course, I said nothing about what I was being arrest for—the marijuana possession. About, three in the morning I want before a judge who released me on my personal reconnaissance. This would not have happen if it were Sunday because a judge would not be available, so I would have had to spend the night in jail.

    I got out of the police stationabout an hour later. I walked and hitch hiked home to my parents place. I was always coming in late or early in the morning, so my parents were not alarmed, and I said nothing about the arrest. Matter of fact they did not find out until a sheriff delivered my summons to court.

    By my court date my parents moved to Washington, DC, and I stayed in Columbia in Howard County. On the day of my court date my best friend, who was leaving in the Fall to finish up law school in Montana, took me. But, first I needed to go to the public defender’s office. To my surprised the office said I should have come in several weeks earlier to get a public defender assigned to my case. I was naive, but as it turned out they assigned one to me, and after we met he advised me to plea probation before judgment. I gladly accepted, since this would avoid an actual conviction, and I would be eligible to have my cased expunged.

    On the way to the courthouse a black cat went in front of our path. My friend said to walk backwards to avoid bad luck. For fun, and I suppose tension release, I complied. Strange, because I had lived with a black cat for nine years, and looking back, I would say I have lived a charmed life.

    As I said, in court my public defender did the talking, and I just affirmed the judge’s decision.

    My probation was for six months unsupervised. The only contact I had with my probation officer was on the phone. The only time I remember talking to him or his office was when I moved to my parents later that summer.

    In addition to the probation I was sentence to five days community service at the local sewage treatment plant. Thank goodness, it was winter by the time my service began. I had an overall fun time working along with other community servers with a supervisor that was not too strict. I even smoke marijuana at the treatment plant with another follow server.

    My time at the plant was done; my probation was soon over; and I think it was a year later that my case was expunged. I cannot say I went straight because of my experience, but I did manage to disentangle myself from drugs and alcohol several years later.

    I would not suggest to anyone that they should take my flippant attitude toward their arrest, trial, and sentencing, but that was the way of life for me, not thinking of consequences of my actions because of the interference of drugs and alcohol. And, I would certainly not suggest to anyone to wait until the day of your appearance in court to secure a public defender, or any other attorney for that matter. One other thing I would not have done is to smoke pot while working at my community service job.

    My father was an administrative law judge for the United States Labor Department. I wonder if he had some similar experiences that you described in your blog. I do know that once my brother Craig asked him whether or not he expected people to stand when he came in to the court room. He said something like damn straight, I am the person to determine if they will get their money or not. Most of his cases involved workman compensation. I do not know why I did not ask him to represent me in court. I suppose I thought that I could handled it myself. I did ask him to drive me to the sewage treatment plant in the middle of a snow storm. We shoveled snow that day.

    Once again, a very good blog, and I only hope that some people will heed your warnings, but how many of them that need the warnings go about reading blogs. Maybe, you could post them along with the courthouse rules.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for the thoughtful and revealing response, Steven. Your experience sounds in many ways much like what young people going through the criminal courts for the first time and for the same or similar reasons encounter today with one glaring exception.

    30-something years ago, before the “No Taxes” revolution had really gotten off the ground, the criminal justice system had enough money to support defendants going to the public defender’s office well in advance of court and for the public defenders to have time to properly research their clients’ defense and prepare a solid case.

    In our current political and economic climate, though, sadly, if a young person now called the public defender’s office and tried to set up an appointment to meet and discuss strategy before the trial, they would most likely be laughed off the phone. Due to lack of support for the tax revenue needed to support the growing needs of already overburdened offices of district attorneys and public defenders, especially in the lower (general sessions) courts, attorneys from either side usually only spend about 5 – 10 minutes talking to the defendant and that ONLY on the day of the hearing and within 30 minutes to an hour of going before the judge.

    Sad, isn’t it?

    It was good to hear from you, my friend. I look forward to your next post.

    Til then, take care, be well, and happy baking, writing, and blogging!

    P.S. Have you heard anything back about the page job or the part-time position at your local grocer?

    Denny

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    1. Hi Denny,

      I came across this joke in a book called “Inside Jokes” (book review to follow on goodreads), and I thought I would post it here.

      “O’Riley was on trail for armed robbery. The jury came out and announced, ‘Not guilty.’

      “‘Wonderful,’ said O’Riley, ‘does that mean I can keep the money?'”

      Happy blogging

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on The Ceaseless Reader Writes and commented:

    Happy Monday & a pleasant Earth Day, y’all. I hope all you beautiful Bloggers have a great day and a wonderful week.

    I’ve been extremely busy for the past few weeks; ain’t it crazy how life gets that way sometimes? I am about 3 weeks behind in sharing my bookthoughts (and goodness do I have some thoughts to share! Spoiler: I recently finished quite possibly the worst book I’ve ever read. It was so bad I couldn’t quit reading to see how much worse it would get. Can’t wait to let y’all know what I think about Phil Valentine’s The God Players.)

    But for now, I’m gonna share an essay I first posted 2 years ago because, well, it’s just time, dammit. For those of you who’ve seen it before, I apologize for the repeat, but I feel I’ve gained enough new followers in recent months to justify reblogging it. It has the added bonuses of being helpful, informative, and funny to boot, so enjoy!

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  4. You may not know but I worked for a City Attorney in a cop shop in Lakewood CO for a short time after I returned from China in 1983. I’d been the paralegal for the NON-cop shop part of the city attorney’s office BEFORE I went to China. I had to prepare the docket every day and, sometimes, interview defendants. That was a surreal kind of party. Then, of course, there was going to court with my brother… I think there are a lot of clueless people in this world and people who think the justice system is not out to help them, but to “get” them. A lot of people seem to think that random rebellion = individualism. I dunno how you do it. ❤

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    1. I did not know that, Martha, thank you for sharing. That must indeed have been an interesting and eye-opening chapter of your life. Maybe not as much so as was your time in China, but still.

      I do it gladly, grateful for the secure & steady employment with assurance of retirement benefits and with the heart-lifting balm of loving, enjoyable family waiting at home every day!

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  5. Missed your posts, so glad you are back. This one had me LOL. I have had my unfortunate times in court, mostly divorce/custody/executor stuff. But also the few times called for jury duty. These stories of the defendants and others are so funny. I bet you could also write about the lawyers, too! The last time i was called (and released) for jury duty, the defending lawyer showed up in a bright yellow plaid suit and exhibited the most (am I being too cruel to say Trumpian) behavior I have ever seen. And I have been to a few rowdy bars in my earlier years. How did this guy pass the bar? But it was a delightfully entertaining post, Denny, and I am one of those who did not catch it the first time. I am waiting for your book… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One of my short stories, “Sick Day”, was published in last year’s edition of Tennessee’s Emerging Writers by Z Publishing. It started as a collaborative project here, but the final version written solely by me, is available in 2 parts here: https://theceaselessreaderwrites.wordpress.com/2018/02/28/sick-day/

      and here: https://theceaselessreaderwrites.wordpress.com/2018/03/21/sick-day-pt-2/

      In addition to the story “Riding High” I told you about in my response to your earlier comment, Z Publishing is printing my story “A Dream of Flight” in this years fantasy/sci-fi edition of Tennessee’s Emerging Writers. But no need to worry about buying it when you can read it for free here:

      https://theceaselessreaderwrites.wordpress.com/2018/09/07/a-dream-of-flight/

      Enjoy, and as always, thank you for your time & thoughts!

      Like

  6. Whew. Lots to pack here. I literally felt I was right there in the courtroom drama. I’ve performed some volunteer work at a prominent court before, so I’m surprised by how wildly different British courts are to US, but I wonder if country courts would be similar to US county courts.

    That poor dog. That Lucy drama. Wow. So scandalous. I only witnessed one scandalous case, but I can’t reveal it. But just the one.

    Great and interesting post, Denny! I think I told you earlier last year that I wanted to read of your courtroom experience, so happy to finally read one! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Soph. Some of the short stories posted here, especially the ones posted under my category ‘Copperhead County’, are fictionalized versions of the people & events I encounter as a PO, so if you’re interested to read more, there they are.

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