MUNICIPAL COURT PROCEDURES
Prepared and Distributed By the
Texas Municipal Courts Association
And Texas Municipal Courts Education Center
*These procedures have been re-printed with permission from the Texas Municipal Courts Education Center.
The law requires that you appear in court on your case. If you were issued a citation, your appearance date is noted on the citation (ARRAIGNMENT INFO). If you have been released on bond, your appearance date is set on the bond. If you request a continuance (read the specific section on continuances), the court will notify you of your new appearance date. You or your attorney may appear in person in open court, by mail or you may make an appearance in person at the court facility.
Your first appearance is to determine your plea. If you waive a jury trial and plead guilty or nolo contendere (no contest), you may talk to the judge about extenuating circumstances that you want the judge to consider when setting your fine, but the judge is not required to reduce your fine. Before pleading guilty or no contest you may want to read the section on plea. If you plead not guilty, the court will schedule a jury trial unless you waive that right. If you do, the trial will be before the judge.
Driving Safety Courses
If you are charged with a traffic offense under the Subtitle C, Trans. Code, you may ask the judge before the appearance date on the citation, either orally or in writing, to take a driving safety course. If you were operating a motorcycle and request to take a driving safety course, you must take a motorcycle operator’s training course. At the time of the request, you must do the following:
(1) Present proof of financial responsibility (liability insurance);
(2) Plead guilty or nolo contendere; and
(3) Pay court costs and an administration fee.
Prosecution of the traffic offense will be postponed for 90 days to allow you time to complete the course. You are required to attend a driving safety course that has been approved by the Texas Education Agency or a motorcycle operator’s course approved by the Department of Public Safety.
You are eligible to request this course if you:
(1) Have not requested and taken a driving safety course for a traffic offense within the last 12 months;
(2) Are not currently taking the course for another traffic violation;
(3) Have not committed the offense of speeding 25 mph over the speed limit; and
(4) Have not committed one of the following offenses;
(a) Failure to give information at accident scene;
(b) Leaving scene of Accident;
(c) Fleeing or attempting to elude police officer;
(d) Reckless driving;
(e) Passing a school bus; or
(f) A serious traffic violation as defined under Chapt 522, Trans. Code, which applies to drivers with commercial driver’s licenses.
Prior to the end of the 90-day period, you must present to the court a copy of your driving record from the Department of Public Safety. You are required to take the course within 90 days from the date of the request. You have to show the court a completion certificate issued by the Texas Education Agency or the Texas Department of Public Safety. If you do not, the court will send you a notice requiring you to return to court and explain why you failed to show proof of completion. If you have a good reason why you were unable to present your proof within 90 days, the judge may, but is not required, to grant you an extension. Your failure to be present at that hearing may result in a warrant for your arrest being issued.
Under our American system of justice, all persons are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. On a plea of not guilty, a formal trial is held. As in all criminal trials, the State is required to prove the guilt of the defendant “beyond a reasonable doubt” of the offense charged in the complaint before a defendant can be found guilty by a judge or jury.
Your decision concerning which plea to enter is very important. Please consider each plea carefully before making a decision. If you plead guilty or nolo contendere in open court, you should be prepared to pay the fine and court costs. You should contact the court regarding how to make payment.
Plea of Guilty - By a plea of guilty, you admit that the act is prohibited by law, that you committed the act charged, and that you have no defense or excuse for your act. Before entering your plea of guilty, however, you should understand the following:
(1) The State has the burden of proving that you violated the law (the law does not require that you prove you did not violate the law);
(2) You have the right to hear the State’s evidence and to require the State to prove you violated the law; and
(3) A plea of guilty may be used against you later in a civil suit if there was a traffic accident (another party can say
(4) you were at fault or responsible for the accident because you pled guilty to the traffic charge).
Plea of Nolo Contendere (no contest) – A plea of nolo contendere means that you do not contest the State’s charge against you. You will almost certainly be found guilty, unless you are eligible and successfully complete a driving safety course and/or court ordered probation. Also, a plea of nolo contendere cannot be used against you in a subsequent civil suit for damages.
Plea of Not Guilty – A plea of not guilty means that you are informing the Court that you deny guilt or that you have a defense in your case, and that the State must prove what it has charged against you. If you plead not guilty, you will need to decide whether to hire an attorney to represent you. If you represent yourself, the following section on The Trial will help you to understand trial procedure.
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 document which alleges what act you are supposed to have committed and that the act is unlawful. You can be tried only for what is alleged in the complaint. You have the following rights in court:
(1) The right to inspect the complaint before trial and have it read to you at the trial;
(2) The right to have your case tried before a jury, if you so desire;
(3) The right to hear all testimony introduced against you;
(4) The right to cross-examine any witness who testifies against you;
(5) The right to testify in your behalf;
(6) 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
(7) 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 on 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. The judge will make a decision whether or not to grant the continuance. You may request a continuance for the following reasons:
(1) 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
(2) 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 prosecution witnesses have finished testifying, you have the right to cross examine. In other words, you may ask the witnesses questions about their testimony of any other facts relevant to the case. You cannot, however, 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, but you will have an opportunity to do so later in the trial.
After the prosecution has presented its case, you may present your case. 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.
If you so desire, 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 testimony presented during the trial.
Judgement - 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 testimony of witnesses and any 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.
The amount of fine the court assesses is determined only by the facts and circumstances of the case. Mitigating circumstances may lower the fine, even if you are guilty. On the other hand, aggravating circumstances may increase the fine. The maximum fine for most municipal court traffic violations is $200; for municipal court penal violations-$500; for certain city ordinance violations $2,000; and for other city ordinance violations-$500.
In addition to a fine, court costs mandated by state law will be charged. The costs are different depending on the offense. You need to check with the court for the amount that will be assessed to the violation for which you are charged. If you request a trial, you may have to also pay the costs of overtime paid to a peace officer spent testifying in the trial. If you request a jury trial, an additional $3 jury fee is assessed. If a warrant was served or processed by a peace officer, an additional $50 fee is also assessed.
Court costs are assessed if you are found guilty at trial, if you plead nolo contendere, if your case is deferred for a driving safety course, of if your case is deferred and you are placed on probation. If you are found not guilty, court costs cannot be assessed.
The municipal court has jurisdiction over juveniles (16 years or younger) charged with Class C misdemeanor offenses except public intoxication. All juveniles are required to appear in open court for all proceedings in their cases. The parent of any juvenile charged in municipal court is required to be present in court with his or her child. Juveniles who fail to appear in court may have an additional charge of failure to appear filed against them. Juveniles who fail to appear or who fail to pay their fine will be reported to the Department of Public Safety who will suspend their driver’s license. If they do not have a driver’s license, they will not be able to obtain one until they appear in court.