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The First Court Date - What to Expect

Once the initial shock of arrest and pre-trial release wears off, many people accused of a crime in Harris County will look at the handful of papers given to them upon their release from jail and begin to worry about what to do next, particularly if nothing like this has ever happened to them before.

A large percentage of people who contact us have no experience with the criminal justice system other than a traffic ticket. More serious misdemeanors (Class A and B) and all felonies are handled very differently than Class C moving violations. In part, this is because the consequences are much greater, and the Sixth Amendment's "Right to Counsel" has much more meaning in cases where incarceration is a potential punishment.

This post is an attempt to explain the experience of an initial appearance in Harris County. Other counties and courts may handle things differently, but because Harris is the most populous county in the state and where most Houston area defendants find themselves, this post is limited to it.

The Bail Bond

Most individuals who post bond in Harris County will be released from the Harris County Jail. Some may have their bail posted while still at the City of Houston Jail, one of the county annexes, or a small municipal jail, but the paperwork will typically be the same. It primarily consists of a single legal size piece of green paper that has "BAIL BOND" printed at the top above the county seal.

This is a standardized form that the county has adopted. The original is filed with the District Clerk and is kept in their file. It is the ticket to freedom while the case is pending and contains all of the information the Defendant needs to make their first court date.

Where To Go?

The bail bond will have the date and time of the court in the top left corner of the page and the number of the court typed on a blank line in the middle. Above the court number to the right will be typed misdemeanor or felony, usually abbreviated, on another blank line.

All criminal cases in Harris County (except most Class C Misdemeanors) are handled at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center (CJC). It is located at 1201 Franklin in downtown Houston at the corner of Franklin & San Jacinto. It is a beige twenty story tower that with signage stating "Harris County Criminal Justice Center" on the front of it. Misdemeanors are typically handled in the fifteen County Criminal Courts at Law located on floors 8 through 11. Felonies are in the twenty-two Criminal District Courts on floors 18-20. There are signs next to and inside of every elevator stating which courts are on which floor.

Punctuality

Appearing, in court at the time on the bail bond is a condition of bail. Not appearing as ordered may result in the bail being forfeited and a warrant being issued for arrest. Therefore, it is critical that defendants allow extra time to deal with weather, traffic, parking, and long lines for the metal detectors at the courthouse.

Once inside and on the correct floor the defendant must go into the courtroom and wait – not in the hallway, in the courtroom. If the doors are locked, wait in the hallway until a bailiff opens them and then go in and have a seat. All cell phones must be turned off and hats removed. Many judges have dress codes. The best rule of thumb is to dress like you're going to church.

Parking

There are many places to park near the courthouse. The closer one is, the more it costs. The lots within a block of the courthouse may charge three times as much as another lot or garage a few blocks away. Street parking at meters is not a good solution as they usually have two or three hour limits. If a defendant has time, they may want to familiarize themselves with the area in advance. The county garage behind the civil courthouse is the best bargain. Google it.

Metal Detectors

The entrance to the CJC is on Franklin. Early on weekday mornings, however, lines form outside the building as visitors have to go through metal detectors. These lines can take as long as thirty minutes or more to get through during peak hours (7:45-9:00 A.M.). They are as sensitive as those at airports, so it's a good idea to leave extra metal objects and jewelry at home. Expect to have to remove your shoes and belts.

Elevators

No one will ever accuse the CJC of having a functional design, particularly with regard to the number of elevators. There are only twelve and they are past the metal detectors divided in two groups of six. The six on the left service the floors B-10 and the six on the right service floors 11-20. One may switch elevators on the 10th Floor, but this next to impossible before 9:15 A.M., due to the way they are programmed.

There will be a line for the elevators, too. Expect to wait at least fifteen minutes during peak hours.

Docket Call

After arriving on the right floor and entering the correct courtroom, defendants should take a seat in a pew and wait for docket call. As many of the courtrooms are full to capacity, friends and family members should wait in the hallway. If there is nowhere to sit, defendants should stand.

The court staff or judge will "call docket" at the appointed time. This is a roll call. They will give instructions that typically consist of responding with "present" or "here" when a name is called, whether the accused has hired a lawyer, "yes" or "no," and the lawyer's name.

If You Have Hired a Lawyer

Most lawyers have more than one appearance on any given day. Different courts start at different times and have different rules. If the attorney is not there, it is probably because they are in another court and will be there as soon as they are able. It's not a time to panic.

Once the attorney arrives, he or she will generally greet the client, review the state's file, obtain a copy of the offense report, if possible, and then get a "reset" which is the date of the next court setting at which both Defendant and attorney must appear.

Depending on the agency and type of offense, the police reports and other evidence may not be available to review on the first setting.

For example, blood and other lab tests take weeks or months to come in, videos may not be turned in for weeks (and aren't usually in the courtroom), and the existence of photographs may be unknown. Other types of evidence (medical records, 911 call tapes, etc.) have to be ordered and will almost never be available at a first setting. If there is complainant (alleged victim), the prosecutors may not have yet contacted them to find out about restitution, injuries, and their views on punishment. This is a "RIP" call which must be done prior to making a punishment recommendation (plea offer) in the case.

As to police reports, if the warant was filed or the arrest was made by the Houston Police Department or a county agency, the report will usually be there, for smaller municipalities and other agencies, they may not. They are part of the state's file which is usually in the courtroom and handled by one of the three prosecutors assigned to that court.

Some types of prosecutions are handled by special divisions of the District Attorney's Office (bad checks, crimes against children, special crimes, family violence, etc.) and their files are not in the courtroom. The defense attorney may have to request that the assigned prosecutor be paged to come to that court. Like defense lawyers, prosecutors in special divisions have a number of courts to go to every morning.

If You Have NOT Hired a Lawyer

After docket call, the judge or the court coordinator may call the names of individuals without a lawyer to speak with them. They will ask them if they intend to hire a lawyer or whether they believe themselves to be indigent (unable to afford a lawyer).

If the defendant indicates they are indigent, they will have to fill out an affidavit describing their financial situation to be reviewed by the judge to determine whether they will be appointed a lawyer. If they are found indigent, an attorney will be appointed who will likely meet with them that morning.

If the defendant indicates a desire to hire a lawyer or is not found indigent, they will be given a reset for a period of time to hire an attorney.

Bail Conditions

In some types of cases, the judge will place conditions on a person's bail. At the bottom of the bail bond is the most common bond condition imposed, namely not to talk to the prosecution, witnesses, complainants (alleged victims).

Conditions of bail vary depending upon the facts, type, and seriousness of the offense. The universal unwritten condition of bail is to not violate the law. Other common conditions include no contact with the alleged victim, the imposition of a en emergency protective order, drug testing, monitoring by pre-trial services, an ankle monitor, or the installation of an ignition interlock device on any car regularly operated by the Defendant. These conditions may have either a compliance or expiration date.

It is important that the accused understand the conditions on their bail before they leave court, and follow them. Violating bail conditions will result in bail being revoked, the defendant returned to jail, and often the required bail amount increased.

Leaving Court

If pre-trial supervision is ordered, the accused may have to report to 49 San Jacinto or the 12th floor immediately for processing.

The next court date will be on the "Agreed Reset" or "Case Setting Form." Unless otherwise indicated, the next court date will be in the same location.

If one is not sure whether they are free to leave, they should ask their attorney. If they do not have an attorney, they should ask the Court Coordinator or a bailiff.

Once a case has been reset and the judge has imposed bail conditions (and the paperwork for them explained and delivered by the Court Liason Officer (CLO)), the Defendant may leave the way that they came -and be glad that they can. Many can't.

Categories: Criminal Defense

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