Attending a criminal court proceeding can be daunting for those unfamiliar with the system. While procedures in state court vary from county to county, there are certain universal procedures in all courtrooms and some required by Texas law. Knowledge of some basic courtroom procedures may help alleviate some of the apprehension associated with attending criminal court for the first time.
The times of day when people appear in court are called “dockets”. Most courts begin with a calling of the names of the people on the docket. The judge or a member of the court staff will call out the name of everyone who is scheduled to appear, and the person called must answer. The purpose of calling the docket is to ensure that everyone who is scheduled to attend court is in attendance. In some courts, the docket call is replaced by check-in procedure with a bailiff or other member of the court staff. A defendant who fails to appear for docket call is subject to bond revocation and re-arrest.
Some trial courts follow formal arraignment procedures; in others, these duties are handled by magistrates. The defendant may be brought before the judge where a finding of probable cause is made and a plea is entered. In Harris County, if a defendant has been arrested (as opposed to making a bond prior to arrest), it is common for the defendant to not be formally arraigned. These duties are often handled by a magistrate who sees the defendant before he or she is transferred to the trial court.
Most of what occurs during a docket are negotiations between prosecutors and defense attorneys. Prosecutors and defense lawyers discuss the disposition of cases, the status of discovery (evidence provided to the defense), plea bargains, and the possibility of trial. It is generally during these conferences that the decision of whether to dismiss a case, enter into a plea bargain, or set a case for trial is made.
The court will hear pleas of guilty and no contest for those defendants who have entered into plea agreements with the state. Pleas are conducted with varying degrees of formality depending upon the court – many misdemeanor courts have informal plea procedures, while most district courts provide more thorough admonishments. If a court accepts the plea, the defendant will be sentenced at that time in most cases.
Trial and Hearings
On some days, the court will hold trials or hearings. During this period, other business in the court is placed on hold. Most courts delay the start of trials or hearings until later in the morning in order to take care of the business described above. Trials and hearings are public, and those people on a docket may watch the proceedings.
Resets are one of the most common occurrences in criminal court. If a plea is not entered, and a case is not tried or dismissed, the case will be reset to a future court date (generally around a month later). It is not uncommon for a person to come to court six or more times (and in complicated cases, many more) before a case is resolved.