By Erin Gerstenzang
One of the difficult things about a DUI arrest in Georgia is not understanding what comes next. There is a lot of anticipation and anxiety connected with the first court date, particularly if you do not yet have an attorney.
If you find yourself in the position of representing yourself at the first court date here are some tips that you may want to keep in mind as you prepare.
  • Let the Judge know you want an attorney. At the first court date, it is very common for people to come without an attorney because they haven’t had time to hire one yet. If you don’t have an attorney, you can ask the Judge for some extra time to find and hire a lawyer or apply for the Public Defender. If the Judge asks you how much time you need – be honest! Tell the Judge what the hold up is – maybe you need to save money, or the attorney you want is not available yet. Usually, the Judge will be flexible at that first appearance and give you time to find a lawyer. Keep in mind that her patience may evaporate if you show up a second time without doing what you promised. The Judge may have notes of your initial conversation and follow up with you at the next appearance – so don’t assume she won’t remember what she told you or what you told her. If you don’t have a lawyer by the second court appearance the Judge may have a lot of questions about how much you have done to try and get representation, including whether or not you have applied for the Public Defender if money is an issue.
  • Do not waive your right to a jury trial. The waiver will be in writing, so read everything you sign very carefully. Most people without an attorney in court are intimidated by the prospect of a jury trial. They don’t think twice before waiving their right to one, but many attorneys would advise against it. If you pay attention you will see very few attorneys waiving the jury trial at the first appearance. It is best to wait to speak with an attorney before waiving any of your constitutional rights.
  • Manage your expectations. Do not be disappointed when the prosecutor does not have much information about the case. It is typical for the video or blood test to take weeks or months. You may notice that very few attorneys have a meaningful conversation with the prosecutor at the first DUI court date about the facts of the case. The reason for this is that attorneys understand that very little of the evidence s going to be ready at that first appearance.
  • Budget enough time. Depending on the size of the calendar the entire court appearance could be as quick as a few minutes or as long as many hours. This can be frustrating when you don’t have an attorney because many Judges will hear the attorney cases first. Plan in advance and reschedule any critical event that you have on the calendar for later that day. Sometimes the process will take a lot longer than anyone expects and if you have something important scheduled later, you may end up missing it.
  • Be patient. Courtrooms can be scary and intimidating, and they are certainly not designed with an orientation toward customer service. When people feel treated poorly, ignored, or rushed – all of which are everyday experiences in court, it does not bring out the best in them. If you prepare for this in advance, it will be easier to keep your wits about you and remain cool, calm and collected. One of the worst things you can do is to be *memorable* to the prosecutor because you lose your cool. Being impatient and ugly with court staff or the prosecutor will make a bad situation worse and create unnecessary friction for you moving forward.
  • Wear something that honors the formality of the occasion. It doesn’t need to be a suit, but it shouldn’t be flip flops and shorts. If you wear a uniform for work, then that is usually perfectly fine, and it is common to see folks in scrubs on their way to the hospital.
  • Timing matters. Whether you are going to hire a private attorney or apply for a Public Defender, don’t forget that the clock is ticking. Prioritize making decisions about your representation and don’t drag your feet.  The most important decision you will make after your DUI arrest is deciding which attorney to hire. We all have different strengths – as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach. Ask thoughtful questions, and do your research! Don’t rush it, but don’t run from the task either. Invest in finding out if this attorney is right for you. Your future self will thank you!