Recently, I’ve noticed a handful of newbie cops testifying in traffic court. Unfortunately, some of them have never been schooled on the proper way to testify. I’ve taken it upon myself to give a few tips to the uninitiated.
It’s always bothered me that during FTO, the important topic of testifying in court is not just minimal, but more often than not, completely ignored. My first time in court was nerve racking, sweat inducing, and mouth drying. I stumbled and started at what felt like every turn. Since I testify much more in traffic court, what follows will be more specific to that as opposed to criminal court.
1) Don’t read! I’ve seen a few officers stand in front of the judge and defendant and read their testimony. The judge inevitably stops them and tells them both he and the defendant deserve the officer’s best recollection of the violation. Officers are allowed to use their copy of the citation to refresh their memory, but reading a pre-prepared statement is unprofessional and calls into doubt whether the officer actually remembers the incident.
2) Practice! When you’re new to testifying, there’s nothing wrong with writing out what you want to say and practice it. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Aren’t you just memorizing the pre-prepared statement? That’s not what I mean. When you first start out, it’s a stressful experience. Writing down what you want to say and practicing your testimony outside of court helps reduce your nervousness and increases your confidence. Write down what your recollections are and practice it. Over and over and over. When I first started, I’d recite my testimony while I was getting ready for court, on the ride over, and in my head while others were testifying. After you’ve got a few cases under your belt, you won’t need to write out your testimony at all.
Each case is unique, but each testimony follows a similar pattern. There a few key points you’ve got to hit in each one. You’ve got to mention who you are, that you were in uniform and driving/riding a marked unit, the location of the violation, what violation occurred and the circumstances surrounding it, an enforcement stop was conducted, identify the driver/defendant and how they were identified on scene (verbal, CDL, ID card), any relevant statements made*, and that the driver/defendant signed the citation. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it does include most, if not all, of the things I mention each time I testify.
*I say “relevant” because when the driver/defendant calls you an asshole or asks you if you have anything better to do, it has nothing to do with the violation. If you bring up these things in court, it makes you appear like a petty, vindictive jerkoff….in my opinion. Conversely, if the defendant brings it up or claims you did or said something you didn’t, I think you’re all good to mention additional facts.
3) Pay attention! If you’re not called first, take the time to listen to other cases and how the more experienced officers testify. Listen to what works and what doesn’t. Come up with a spiel that works for you using bits and pieces of what you liked about other officer’s testimony.
4) Anticipate! Put yourself in the defendant’s shoes. What kinds of questions do you think they will ask. Are there any holes in your testimony they may try to exploit? Did you leave something out? The more specific and detailed you are, the less the defendant can use to trip you up.
5) Relax! It’s just traffic court, kids. You’re bound to lose some. Some you may well deserve to lose and some the judge may just get a wild hair. You never know. Just don’t let any of it discourage you about tomorrow’s case. If the defendant wins, thank the judge. If you win, thank the judge. Remember that you’re getting paid to be there regardless of the outcome. Believe me, if the defendant wins, he/she will eventually get another ticket and the whole rigmarole will start all over again.