When Does a Case go to Trial?
Most criminal traffic cases do not go to trial and here’s why. By the time a case is ready for trial, all discovery and disclosure has been completed. This means both parties have all of the information available and know the relative strengths and weaknesses of their cases. This also means that all negotiations have concluded. If he defendant has a plausible defense, factual argument or procedural argument, the prosecution has probably offered a deal – a plea agreement – which offers a better outcome than what was originally charged. For example, if the defendant was charged with excessive speed (criminal speed), and the prosecution offers a plea to a civil speeding charge that results in the criminal charge being dismissed, it makes no sense to proceed to trial. Going to trial in this situation means that the defendant is passing over an outcome that guarantees he avoids the criminal charge and instead risking a criminal conviction by going to trial.
Similarly, if the defendant has no legitimate defense to the charge, it may not make sense to proceed to trial. Entering into a plea agreement with the state, even if that means just agreeing to plead to the charge, can maintain some control over the sanction rather than leaving the sanction up to the judge at a trial.
If there is little risk of a worse sanction at trial than what has been offered in a plea agreement from the State, then it can make sense to go ahead and proceed to trial. Sometimes unexpected things happen at trial, or between the time the trial is set and the trial date. The citing officer might get deployed with the military, or die, or have something come up on the day of trial. Any of these could result in the officer failing to appear for the trial, the State being unable to present their case, and the charge likely being dismissed. These are extremely unlikely situations though, so if the defendant lives out of state and it would be burdensome to return for trial, the plea agreement may still make sense.
Jury vs. Bench Trial
Almost all criminal traffic trials are bench trials. A bench trial means the trial is in front of a judge, not a jury. It’s called a bench trial because the judge, sitting at his bench, decides the innocence or guilt of the defendant. A few criminal traffic violations are jury eligible, meaning the defendant can choose to try his case before a jury rather than the judge. The judge would still be present to administer the jury trial though. Jury eligible criminal traffic violations include:
What Happens at Trial?
Below is a general description of what happens at a bench trial. Misdemeanor cases are tried in courts of limited jurisdiction. These are generally small to very small courts and there can be a lot of variety in how trials are conducted.
The parties sometimes present opening statements. An opening statement is a brief statement about what each side plans to show at trial.
The State will present its case first. It will call the citing officer and lead the officer through a series of questions. The officer will describe what he observed and why he thinks the defendant committed a traffic violation.
The defendant, or the defendant’s attorney if the defendant has an attorney, will have an opportunity to cross-examine the officer. The goal here is to highlight any points that are favorable to the defendant or that create doubt about the State’s case.
The State will have an opportunity to question the officer again, called a redirect. The goal here is to rehabilitate the officer (make him look better) after the cross-examination.
That concludes the state’s case.
The defendant then has the opportunity to testify, however the defendant does not have to testify. Many times, the defendant will choose not to testify. If the defendant does testify, he opens himself up to being cross-examined by the State. If the defendant actually committed the violation, it probably makes sense for the defendant to not testify.
The parties may then have an opportunity for closing statements.
The judge will then typically enter a judgment of guilty or not guilty. Sometimes the judge may take the matter under advisement, which means they will issue a ruling at a later date. If the judge finds the defendant guilty, the judge will then sentence (punish) the defendant. The sentence could include imposing fines, jail time, probation, community service or restitution.