What To Expect When You're Expecting (to Testify at a Trial)
January 25, 2011 11:03 AM   Subscribe

I received a court summons - eeek! They'd like me to be a witness at another individual's criminal trial (whew!). What should I expect? Note: this question involves Pennsylvania and the the Magisterial District Court system.

Last year, I was involved in a car accident. A woman rear-ended me when I was stopped at a red light. She then backed up and - in an attempt to flee the scene - rear-ended me AGAIN (I know, right?). On her second attempt, she successfully fled the scene of the accident. As she was fleeing, I saw (and committed to memory) both her face and license plate number.

Long story slightly shorter: I filed a police report. A month later, I was asked to pay a visit to the police station; I (correctly) picked her out of a photo lineup. The other day, I received a summons: she is being charged with leaving the scene of an accident, careless driving and driving with a suspended license. They would like me to appear at the trial as a witness. Now what?

- How likely IS this to go to trial? Will they offer her a plea bargain first, like they do with traffic tickets?
- The trial won't be like a televised trial, sure - but what SHOULD I expect? Oaths? Cross-examination? The perp glaring at me from across the room?
- Is there anything I should do to prepare for this experience?
- MeFites who've served as witnesses before: how was YOUR experience? Was it uncomfortable/horrible?
- Am I likely to be awarded damages at this trial if she IS found guilty (my insurance covered most, but not ALL of the financial issues)?
- Is she likely to go to jail? As she didn't injure or kill me, I've got to say I'd feel some degree of guilt if she had to do time.
posted by julthumbscrew to Law & Government (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Most cases don't go to trial. You were dilligent in filing the police report, you IDd her license plate and picked her out a lineup. They have her dead to rights basically. The DA may offer her a plea which, honestly, unless they have some sort of good defense worked out, they will likely take.

If you do testify, you WILL be cross-examined. You're the main witness against her. The defense will try to impeach your testimony, try to make you say something inconsistent with something you said previously, make it look like you don't remember something correctly or that you were somehow at fault.

Restitution is possible as part of the sentence. Speak to the DA about they asking for it to be part of a plea or sentence.

Not knowing her record, it's hard to say if she will go to jail. Don't feel bad about the outcome. She put herself in this situation and, through her actions and inaction, finds herself facing time, not because of what you did.
posted by inturnaround at 11:14 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

- Is she likely to go to jail? As she didn't injure or kill me, I've got to say I'd feel some degree of guilt if she had to do time.

I'd just urge you to reconsider this. What she did was wildly reckless and very dangerous. That she didn't hurt/kil you is pure luck: she's shown a willingness to use a motor vehicle like this, and it could be vastly worse next time around.
posted by xmutex at 11:22 AM on January 25, 2011 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a criminal defense lawyer. I can't answer questions specific to your jurisdiction, but generally speaking, if you're getting a summons or subpoena to appear for a trial, it's somewhat more likely to go to trial. But first thing's first: You must read the entire document and understand what it says. It may answer some of your questions.

There will probably be plea bargaining, but sometimes we just can't reach an agreement. On the prosecutor's side, sometimes the defendant thinks your idea of a fair resolution is too draconian; on the defense side, sometimes the prosecution wants unreasonable sentences, for the defendant to plead to charges you know he can't prove, and sometimes just because your defendant strongly desires to exercise their constitutional right to a jury trial. These things happen.

As for preparation, contact whomever issued the subpoena. If it was the prosecutor, they'll probably give you details of why it's headed to court and what they proposed as a settlement--if you think it sounds too severe, you can let them know you'd be ok with a lesser punishment. Sometimes, the prosecutor will relax a little if they know you're not going to complain about the result. On the other hand, the prosecutor knows the defendant's past record and may feel that there are reasons that justify more severe treatment.

When you go to court, wear a suit or a shirt and tie if you can. If you can't, wear your "Sunday best." Also, just tell the truth, and do it as succinctly as possible. Listen to the questions you're asked and respond only to the question, e.g., if you're asked what color the car was, "red" is acceptable, "a red 1984 Honda Civic Si, lowered, with chrome wheels, tinted windows and a loud exhaust" is too verbose, and mostly irrelevant. If the question can be answered truthfully with, a "yes" or "no," that is usually your best bet. "I don't know," and "I don't recall" are also acceptable answers if they're true. Avoid the urge to argue with the lawyers from the stand.

Pro-Tip: Most people get nervous on the stand. That's ok. If anyone hands you papers to look at, try to place them on the jury stand and review them that way--shaky hands are even more obvious when they're shaking paper!

Don't get frustrated with the lawyers. They weren't there. They are just doing their job. Don't blame the defense attorney or act contemptuously, even (especially) if he's an asshole. Just tell the truth.

I can't answer the question about damages, but you should ask the prosecutor about restitution. Don't ask a non-lawyer. The rules of restitution and about how your state handles payments from insurance are technical and may vary.

The prosecutor will probably tell you about the sentence they will seek if they win at trial. If you think that's too severe, and the defendant loses, there's no law against you telling the defense attorney what you think and offering to cooperate with his efforts.
posted by Hylas at 11:30 AM on January 25, 2011 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a criminal defense attorney, and I frequently set things like that for trial without intending to actually have the trial. If enough victim or witnesses show up for the State to prevail, I will often advise my client to take a plea agreement. Setting it for trial is often just an attempt to get the case dismissed for lack of prosecution (meaning dismissed because the state wasn't able to go forward with the trial).

I don't practice in that location, but I think it's quite likely that prosecutors have offered her a plea agreement.

You can be expect to be put under oath, called to testify, which is just to factually recount what happened. Don't make assumptions about what "must have" happened; do not conclude anything based on what you saw; just testify to what you directly experienced (you're only allowed to testify to things of which you have personal knowledge). It's quite annoying to judges and attorneys when too-smart witnesses go beyond the scope of the question or testify to things outside their direct knowledge.

If you testify truthfully you don't have anything to worry about with regard to impeachment on cross examination. If a defense attorney asks you a question that you think, if answered truthfully, may somehow let his client "get off," answer it truthfully anyway. Defense attorneys will often try to get witnesses to give weaselly answers to questions, so that it is clear to the court that you are shading the truth in the prosecution's favor. Don't fall for that. Just answer every question truthfully without regard to whether you think it will help or hurt the prosecution or defense. Smart people often make the worst witnesses because they're big talkers, make assumptions about what questions are trying to get at, and make assumptions about what may have happened even if they don't have direct knowledge.

As to the "perp" glaring at you. Yes, it happens. But this is such a minor case I can't imagine this being a big issue. This is more akin to a traffic violation than a major crime.
posted by jayder at 11:30 AM on January 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Is she likely to go to jail? As she didn't injure or kill me, I've got to say I'd feel some degree of guilt if she had to do time.

I don't know about "likely," but it's certainly possible. Fleeing the scene of an accident is a felony in every state. It's actually considered a more serious crime than having the accident in the first place. And for all you know, this is just the last on a long list of charges the prosecutor is bringing. She may have fled because she was leaving the scene of a drug deal, or because she had an outstanding warrant for heaven knows what.

The trial aside, you should probably call your insurance company and tell them that you have identified the person in question, if you haven't already, and that she's facing criminal charges. They'll appreciate the opportunity to subrogate, even if they decide not to exercise it for one reason or another. If nothing else, it will make your insurance carrier like you, and that's no bad thing.
posted by valkyryn at 11:42 AM on January 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

As she didn't injure or kill me, I've got to say I'd feel some degree of guilt if she had to do time.

The question of whether she injured or killed you is irrelevant to the question of whether she should go to jail. It shouldn't enter into your consideration; you are not responsible for the decisions she made. The state is, and the state is pursuing its interests by prosecuting this woman. The end result of that may be that she goes to jail, or it may not.

But there is no reason for you to feel "guilty" about the choices that she made. Even more pertinently, there is nothing that you can or should do to prevent this woman from going to jail.
posted by dfriedman at 11:54 AM on January 25, 2011

Best answer: - MeFites who've served as witnesses before: how was YOUR experience? Was it uncomfortable/horrible?

This is the only question I can personally answer. I was a witness in a criminal case a few years ago, and assault that occurred in a public place with dozens of witnesses.

The primary word I would use to describe it would be "boring". I was not allowed to be in the courtroom during any part of the trial besides my own testimony, presumably so that I could not alter my testimony based on the accounts of other witnesses. I was, however, required to be at the courthouse and on hand in case they wanted to bring me in for further testimony. As a result, I spent many, many hours sitting on a bench outside the courtroom.

It was a bit uncomfortable when I was being cross-examined by the defense. I was asked the same question in at least a dozen different ways, to try and trip me up. I was asked to confirm or agree to statements that reached much farther than any I had made, to try and trip me up. You get the idea. I just continued to state clearly what I had seen, and only that. The DA will probably talk to you beforehand about this.

Hopefully the case won't go to trial. If it does, hopefully this helps.
posted by rollbiz at 11:59 AM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

- Is she likely to go to jail? As she didn't injure or kill me, I've got to say I'd feel some degree of guilt if she had to do time.

She had no idea how inured you were or weren't when she attempted to flee the scene. In fact, she didn't care about (potentially) injuring you more to get away.

Fleeing the scene of an accident is a felony in every state.

I can't speak for the other 49 states, but it is a Class D misdemeanor in Maine (whereas our Class A,B, and C misdemeanors are considered equivalent to other states' felony charges).
posted by mikepop at 12:05 PM on January 25, 2011

I have been on a criminal trial jury; I have never been a witness.

Wear business-type clothing. Bring something to read. A lot of somethings to read. Some courthouses have wifi, some don't; bring dead-tree material if you're worried about not having someplace to charge an electronic device. Bring snacks. Bring something to drink. A lot (perhaps the majority) of what happens in court is waiting.
posted by rtha at 12:39 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

MeFites who've served as witnesses before: how was YOUR experience? Was it uncomfortable/horrible?

I was subpoenaed by the defense as a witness in a criminal trial. I was not a victim in the alledged crime but had rendered aid to one of the victims.

Prior to the trial, I was given separate phone interviews by the prosecutor and the defense attorney.

After the phone interviews I never heard anything further.

Following the instructions in the subpoena, I went to the trial on the specified date and time, taking a day off of work to do so.

When I walked into the courtroom, the judge asked me who I was and why I was there. I explained that I had a subpoena ordering me to appear.

The defense attorney rushed over to me and, with a brief apology, explained that the subpoena was no longer in effect and that my testimony was not needed. Basically, he changed his mind about calling me to testify after conducting my interview but never communicated that to me.

Thanks a-hole, you owe me a vacation day...
posted by de void at 12:44 PM on January 25, 2011

I was a witness in a very similar case. I saw a hit and run, reported it and was later summoned to court. This case was a little more complicated though, the hit and run was one of many charges against the perpetrator, the majority were part of a bunch of domestic violence and assault charges related to the guy's ex-girlfriend.

So I show up (in my Sunday best) as does the woman he crashed into and we looked very out of place. Contrast us boring suburbanites against a group of loud, brash, borderline trailer trash folks who seemed like they'd seen the inside of a courtroom before.

The ADA was very nice to us and were were actually a very small part of the cases. The kid ended up plea-bargaining and got 18 month in jail. A lot of pleas happen at the last minute when the criminal (and his attorney) finally accept the mountain of evidence against him. Don't be surprised at a plea, just your presence as a witness will motivate her to resolve the case with a minimal sentence as possible for her.

It was a very interesting experience that's for sure. Very different than being called for jury duty.
posted by JohntheContrarian at 12:52 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Fleeing the scene of an accident is a felony in every state. It's actually considered a more serious crime than having the accident in the first place.

Uh, what? I routinely negotiate fifty dollar fines for leaving the scene of an accident involving only property damage; it's the lowest level misdemeanor in my state. And it's not always a felony in my state even if there was injury or death.

Not a good idea to make blanket statements about every state unless you are licensed in every state.
posted by jayder at 1:05 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Not a good idea to make blanket statements about every state unless you are licensed in every state.

Yeah, my bad. I meant "crime" and picked the wrong synonym.

posted by valkyryn at 2:24 PM on January 25, 2011

Best answer: I served on a jury in a criminal case a few weeks ago and got to sit about 10 feet from the witness box. In my case the prosecution was calling the defendants daughters and wife to the stand and so it was extra emotional. One of the things that made it difficult for me as a juror was that some of the testimony was different than what was on the police report of the incident. It was 6 months ago, but stories changed. As jurors we were only privy to what was on the police report if it was read by the cop witnesses. Either side would not want to harm their case by having the cop read back parts that hurt their position.

I bring this up because if when you're sworn in and in the witness box, the defense will be looking for you to slip up from your original statement to the police (and possible in interviews with him). They're not going to yell gotcha and start yelling or start putting words in your mouth. The prosecutor will object if the defense attorney goes to far. Wait a beat before answering a question to make sure you don't start answering if there's an objection coming and whether the judge allows it. In the court cases I've seen (only as jurors or spectators) I think when people get on the stand, they feel they have to answer the question, and the judge telling them to stop is like trying to get your answer in on jeopardy after Alex says you're out of time.

The best course is to just tell the truth. If you're called out for saying something different in court than in the police report, then explain why. Since you have a copy of your police report, you'll know now what you may remember differently. In the case I sat on, when someone (the police, the witnesses, the defendant) was asked about something and it didn't jive, or they didn't remember, they were giving the opportunity to read from the police report.

In my case, the attorneys on both sides, the judge, clerk and bailiff were all totally courteous and professional. I expect that's what you'll find in every courtroom. It won't be some some defense lawyer screaming at you like on TV. He's there trying to get an acquittal. The prosecutor is trying to get a conviction. They're both going to be sweet as honey to you. You're not on trial.

Don't worry about an evil glare from the defendant. She's also having to put on a show that she's not guilty. And shooting laser beams from her eyes at you won't give her sympathy. So instead she'll probably be paying attention to what you're testifying but she's probably trying to look as neutral to what you're saying as possible.

Also don't freak out if it looks like the judge isn't paying attention. He or she is. In my case during jury instructions she told us to ignore what she's doing, only what she says. The judge would read along from the transcriber and not really look at the witness until there was a reason to... she said what?... or an objection.

Finally, I wouldn't let the possible outcome of the trial impact what you say or anything. Just tell the truth and let the judge and/or jury decide. You may be the key witness for the State, but the State must still prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. You job is just to give your truthful account of what happened.

Like it is said above, there's a lot of waiting in court. If Law & Order were realistic, several seasons would be just the cops and other witnesses waiting in the hallway to be called in. Bring stuff to read and do. In the case I was in, all of the witnesses were subject to recall meaning after they testified they had to go back outside and sit on the bench.

In addition to the waiting for things to happen, at least at my courthouse tons of simultaneous cases happening so there will be recesses and conferences and nothing ever seems to start or end as scheduled. Just read that book or do the puzzle.

Look at it as finding out how the justice system works and be thankful you're not at the defense table. Hopefully this will be your first and last experience at the courthouse.
posted by birdherder at 2:57 PM on January 25, 2011

I was a witness in a case. It was a misdemeanor, I think (guy was sitting on a park bench, at a playground full of kids, openly masturbating. Nice.) He didn't bother showing up for his trial so the judge asked me and the other witness what we saw and then found the defendant guilty and I think issued a warrant for his arrest. The whole thing took less than an hour.
posted by Kangaroo at 5:00 PM on January 25, 2011

I would not seek restitution through the civil court. If it turns out she was insured, your insurance company will seek to subrogate (in short, get back from her insurance company what they paid), and at the least you should get the deductible and other expenses back from them as well, because that's what would have happened if she had stopped and done things in the normal way.

I was whacked by a drunk driver once, and because he hit me hard enough to warrant a doctor's visit (which, due to a long set of circumstances I won't unpack, was 100 miles away), I waited 6 months (to make sure there weren't further complications, which there weren't) & sent his insurance company a demand letter offering to release the driver (and by extension, his insurance company) from further liability for $5,000. They came back very quickly with an offer for about $1,600, which I accepted (out of pocket was $300 at most). This was on top of the FMV of the car, which he had totalled, and the rental expenses - I'd already gotten that check.

Some might consider this abuse of the system - I don't. Asshole made me go shopping for another car, and I would have greatly preferred to keep driving what I had rather than go through a week of hassles and car shopping.
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:11 PM on January 25, 2011

Best answer: I was the defendant in an insurance case several years ago. What shocked me about the whole experience was that plaintiff's attorney made several absolutely false statements about my deposition and other previous statements of mine while I was on the stand, and I was so nervous about the whole thing that I didn't challenge it while I was up there.

For example: I'm on the stand, holding a copy of my deposition, at which he was present, which had me discussing the plaintiff's clothing. He asked me to read one line off the page, which didn't mention some detail, and threw that over to the jury as "see, he didn't mention it until today!" The jury didn't get a copy of the deposition, as far as I recall, so the only information they were going to get about this was what came out in testimony.

The printed deposition was more or less like:

Plaintiff Attorney: So what was he wearing?
chazlarson: He was wearing bluejeans.
Plaintiff Attorney: just regular bluejeans?
chazlarson: they were bluejeans with a lot of patches on them.

On the stand he asked me to read the bold line, then claimed the patches had never come up before my attorney had mentioned them earlier in the day.

I didn't know if I could say something like, "Hey, judge, two lines later on this page I mention the patches, he was there", and my attorney didn't object, so I just let it go. The case ended up going my way, but I was shocked at that and a couple other events along those lines.

So, maybe talk with the prosecutor about what to do if a similar situation comes up, just to be prepared. I really would have liked to know if I could ask to speak with my attorney while on the stand, or say "Hey, waitaminnit" or whatever. I was all discombobulated about losing my house or something and didn't want to rock the boat while on the stand and get labelled as a hostile witness and held in contempt and whatever other TV-fueled panic scenarios were going through my head while I'm sitting in the witness stand for the first time in my life.

And, what birdherder says. Bring something to do. I spent three days sitting on a bench at the courthouse before we actually went into the courtroom for the trial.
posted by chazlarson at 8:03 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, my bad. I meant "crime" and picked the wrong synonym.

Since when are "crime" and felony" synonyms?
posted by xmutex at 8:25 PM on January 25, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, everybody - this is some stellar info. I called the courthouse, and they said that they'll have the guys/gals who are prosecuting the case give me a buzz if it looks like it won't go to trial, but to assume that it will. I will pick out a nice respectable outfit, stock up on paperbacks and, if I am called to the stand, remember to answer with The Facts and Only the Facts.

If I do wind up testifying, I'll be sure to update this thread with my experience.
posted by julthumbscrew at 6:50 AM on January 26, 2011

I suppose I should point out, just to be clear, that I've altered most of the details above. The line of questioning did have to do with clothing, but it wasn't bluejeans or patches. Just in case anyone's thinking that I'm revealing details I shouldn't.
posted by chazlarson at 8:52 PM on January 26, 2011

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