Tips for Court Preparation
As the celebrated tennis player Arthur Ashe once said, “One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation.” Preparing for court is a critical part of the process for law enforcement officers. The importance of exhibiting confidence in yourself, your actions and your case cannot be overstated.
Despite what citizens see in TV shows about law enforcement, local and state peace officers in Kentucky generally spend very little time testifying in court and far less time in a trial in which a jury is present. As such, like anything else done rarely, it is important to review some basic rules when it does happen.
Certainly, preparing for court starts the moment the underlying situation, arrest or incident occurs, with the writing of a good report and collection of evidence and documentation needed to support the citation or arrest.
But once an officer gets the subpoena to appear, a few tips are in order.
Prior to the Day of Trial
In most criminal trials, there will be one or more pretrial proceedings that occur before the actual trial. In many, officers aren’t expected to appear, but it is important to check with the prosecutor before any testimony to ensure no decisions were made that may affect what can or, more importantly, cannot be said.
First, read your arrest or citation, and any supplemental reports, carefully. The initial event may have occurred months or even years before the case makes it to a hearing, let alone a trial. In fact, you may have had subsequent interactions with the defendant.
You should make contact with the prosecutor who sent the subpoena. There may be little to discuss, but touch base. Make sure the prosecutor has all the paperwork, as the prosecutor has a legal obligation to share that documentation with the defense.
Officers should ensure any physical evidence needed in the case is available and is transported to the courthouse.
Read the applicable Kentucky statute (and make sure it was the statute in effect at the time of the incident) and ensure you can apply the facts in your case to each of the elements needed to support all of the charges placed.
When you get to the courthouse, have your ‘court face’ on. As soon as you arrive, even before you enter the building, anyone you encounter might have some role in the case in which you are testifying. Most importantly, he or she may be a juror.
On the Stand
When you approach the witness stand, you will be expected to take an oath or affirmation. Look at the individual presenting the oath, usually the court clerk, listen intently and then respond with a strong, “I do.”
To the extent possible, also make eye contact with the jury. It is easy to become focused on the attorney asking the questions and forget your audience is the men and women of the jury. Make an effort to look over and actually connect with the jury, especially when you are giving a longer, narrative answer. Strive to tell a story to the jury, not just answer questions, especially during the prosecution’s questioning.
Although you are permitted to refer to your documents while on the stand, you should know your case well enough to avoid constantly referring to your documentation for details. If you do need to check on a detail, do not read from the document itself. Once you have found the information in the document, look up and at the jury (if a jury is seated) and give the information.
Be mindful of the hearsay rule – avoid repeating what someone else told you unless you have discussed it in detail with your prosecutor beforehand. There are exceptions to the rule, but they can be highly technical. Often you can convey the information without repeating what was said. For example, you might say, “We learned through our investigation the defendant was seen in the area,” rather than “Witness X said he saw the defendant in the area.” It is particularly important to avoid repeating statements by co-defendants that incriminate each other.
The defense attorney is permitted to ask you a leading question, but sometimes a simple yes or no isn’t a sufficient and complete answer. In such cases, respond yes or no first, to avoid appearing evasive. Then the judge will allow you to give more information, if appropriate, to ensure a complete response.
As a rule, when being asked questions by the defense, keep your answers short.
Maintain your composure at all times. Some defense attorneys will push an officer’s buttons, pushing the witness into showing anger. Simply make up your mind that no matter what, you won’t let them do so. If you’ve never faced a particular attorney, you can ask other law enforcement officers in your county. Someone should be familiar with a particular defense attorney’s tactics and can prepare you for what he or she may try.
Remember, peace officers are the face of justice. The jury will be looking to you to provide the facts. Doing so in a professional manner greatly will increase the chances the jury will look with favor on your case.