Municipal Court Trials
Under our American system of justice, all persons are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. The State must prove you guilty of the offense with which you were charged “beyond a reasonable doubt”. A trial in municipal court is a fair, impartial and public trial as in any other court. Under Texas law, you can be brought to trial only after a sworn complaint is filed against you. A complaint is the legal document, which alleges the act you are accuse of committing and that the act is unlawful. You can be tried only for what is alleged in the complaint.
You have the right to a jury trial or may waive a jury trial and have a trial before the judge, commonly called a bench trial or a non-jury trial. You have the following rights in court:
- The right to inspect the complaint before trial and have it read to you at the trial;
- The right to have your case tried before a jury, if you so desire;
- The right to have all testimony introduced against you in open court;
- The right to cross-examine any witness who testifies against you;
- The right to testify, in your behalf;
- The right not to testify, if you so desire. If you choose not to testify, your refusal to do so cannot be held against you in determining your innocence or guilt; and
- You may call witnesses to testify in your behalf at the trial, and have the court issue a subpoena (a court order) to any witnesses to ensure their appearance at the trial. The request for a subpoena may be oral or in writing.
If you choose to have the case tried before a jury, you have the right to question jurors about their qualifications to hear your case. If you think that a juror will not be fair, impartial or unbiased, you may ask the judge to excuse the juror. The judge will decide whether or not to grant your request. You are also permitted to strike three members of the jury panel for any reason you choose, except an illegal reason (such as a strike based solely upon a person’s race).
If you need a continuance for your trial, you must put the request in writing and submit it to the court with your reasons prior to trial (at least seven days). A hearing may be necessary in this motion. You may request a continuance for the following reasons:
- A religious holy day where the tenets of your religious organization prohibit members from participating in secular activities such as court proceedings (you must file an affidavit with the court stating this information); or
- That you feel it is necessary for justice in your case.
Presenting the Case
As in all criminal trials, the State will present its case first by calling witnesses to testify against you. After each prosecution witness testifies, you have the right to cross-examine. You may ask the witnesses questions about their testimony or any other facts relevant to the case. You cannot argue with the witness. Your cross-examination of the witness must be in the form of questions only. You may not tell your version of the incident at this time as you will have an opportunity to do so later in the trial during your testimony.
After the prosecution has presented its case, you may present your case to the court. You have the right to call any witness who knows anything about the incident. The State has the right to cross-examine any witness that you call.
You may testify in your own behalf, but as a defendant, you cannot be compelled to testify. It is your choice, and your silence cannot be used against you. If you do testify, the State has the right to cross-examine you.
After all testimony is concluded, both sides can make a closing argument. This is your opportunity to tell the court why you think that you are not guilty of the offense charged. The State has the right to present the first and last arguments. The closing argument can be based only on the evidence presented during the trial.
Judgment / Verdict
If the case is tried by the judge, the judge’s decision is called a judgment. If the case is tried by a jury, the jury’s decision is called a verdict.
In determining the defendant’s guilt or innocence, the judge or jury can consider only the evidence admitted during the trial. If you are found guilty by either the judge or jury, the penalty will be announced at that time. Unless you plan to appeal your case, you should be prepared to pay the fine at this time.
If you are found guilty, you may request a new trial in the form of an oral or written motion to the court. The motion must be made within one day after a judgment of guilty has been rendered against you. The judge may grant a new trial if the judge is persuaded that justice has not been done in the trial of your case. Only one new trial may be granted for each offense.
If you are found guilty, and are not satisfied with the judgment of the court, you have the right to appeal your case. In order to appeal, you must file an appeal bond twice the fine and cost amount with the municipal court within 10 days of the judgment.