Under our American system of justice, all persons are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. On a plea of not guilty, a trial is held. As in all criminal trials, the State must prove the guilt of a defendant "beyond a reasonable doubt" of the offense charged in the complaint before the defendant can be found guilty by a judge or jury.
Your decision concerning which plea to enter is very important. You should read the following explanation of all three types of pleas and think carefully before making your decision. If you plead guilty or nolo contendere you should be prepared to pay the fine.
Plea of Guilty
By a plea of guilty, you admit that the act is prohibited by law and that you committed the act charged. Before entering your plea of guilty, however, you should understand the following:
The State has the burden of proving you violated the law (the law does not require that you prove you did not violate the law). You have the right to hear the State's evidence and require the state to prove you violated the law.
A plea of guilty may be used against you later in a civil suit if there was a traffic accident (another party can say you were at fault or responsible for the accident because you plead 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 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 may not be used against you in a subsequent civil suit for damages.
Plea of Not Guilty
A plea of not guilty means that you deny guilt and that the State must prove the charge that is filed against you. If you plead not guilty, you need to decide whether to hire an attorney to represent you. If you represent yourself, the following sections on Pre-Trial and The Trial may help you to understand your rights and trial procedure.
All individuals who request a Trial by Judge or a Jury Trial, are required to attend a pre-trial conference. At the pre-trial conference, you will meet with the prosecutor who may explain various sentencing options including deferred disposition and driving safety course (DSC).
You do not have to explain your side to the prosecutor if you do not want to, as you have the right to remain silent and not say anything at all. If you do choose to speak to the prosecutor, anything that you say, may be used against you. In addition, you do not have to accept a plea bargain if one is offered as you have a right to a trial.
A trial in municipal court is a fair, impartial and public trial as in any other court. Under Texas law, you may be brought to trial only after a sworn complaint is filed against you. A complaint is a document that charges you with the offense that you are alleged to have committed. You may be tried only for what is alleged in the complaint. You have the following rights in court:
- The right to have a notice of the complaint not later than the day before any proceedings
- The right to inspect the complaint before trial, and have it read to you at trial
- The right to have your case tried before a jury, if you so desire
- The right to hear all testimony introduced against you
- The right to cross-examine witnesses who testify against you
- The right to testify on your behalf
- The right not to testify, if you so desire. If you choose not to testify, your refusal to do so may not be held against you in determining your innocence or guilt
You may call witnesses to testify in your behalf at trial, and have the court issue a subpoena (a court order) to any witness to ensure his or her appearance at trial. The request for a subpoena must be in writing, directed to the Clerk of the Court at least three weeks prior to your trial date, and you must give the name, current address, and telephone number of each witness that you want subpoenaed.
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 for a challenge for cause to excuse the juror. The judge will decide whether to grant your request. In each jury trial, you are also permitted to strike three members of the jury panel for any reason you choose, except an illegal reason (such as based solely upon a person’s race or gender).
This is referred to as a peremptory strike and each side has three peremptory strikes. Most jurors are selected from the first twelve members of the jury panel, as a municipal court jury is composed of six jurors, not twelve.