The Criminal Justice Center is located at the corner of Smith Street & South Water.
There are two different courtrooms, courtroom A and courtroom B. The entrance to Courtroom A is on the Smith St. side of the building and the entrance to Courtroom B is on the South Water side of the building.
There will be two lists posted on the front doors on either side labeled Courtroom A and Courtroom B with the lists of cases that will be heard in each courtroom.
Once you find the correct courtroom, court will start at 9:00 a.m. Either Judge Jim Hunter or Judge Mike Carter will give a short speech explaining how the courts run, especially for those without an attorney. Then, the Judges will call the docket, which is a list of the names of the defendants who have court that day.
If you don’t have an attorney, then you must stand up when your name is called. The judge will ask you if you have an attorney. If you don’t have an attorney and if you are charged with a misdemeanor, then the Judge will ask you how you plead, guilty or not guilty. If you plead guilty, then the Court will find you guilty and the Court can sentence you how they see fit. If you plead not guilty, then your case will be called later in the day for a bench trial. You will be on one side and the officer and victim will be on the other side. Usually, the DA is not involved in the bench trial unless you have an attorney.
If you don’t have an attorney and if you are charged with a felony, then the judge will ask if you want a preliminary hearing or if you want to waive the hearing. A preliminary hearing is a probable cause hearing only. It is NOT a trial that decides guilt or innocence. If you don’t have an attorney, then you don’t know how to assess whether or not you need to have a preliminary hearing or to waive it. You also don’t know how to conduct a preliminary hearing yourself. You could make some terrible mistakes that could really hurt your case if you try to have the preliminary hearing without an attorney.
If you have an attorney, then your attorney will answer the docket call for you. Once your attorney has your file the Court will not call your case again until your attorney gives the file back to the judge.
After the docket call, your attorney will go back into the room behind the court and discuss your case with the officer and with the DA assigned to your case. If you have a misdemeanor case, then the DA will usually make a settlement offer to your attorney. Your attorney should not agree to anything until they relay the offer to you. Once an agreement is reached, then it is written up and announced to the Court for approval. You will stand at the podium in front of the Judge with your attorney by your side.
After the settlement is announced to the Court, then you will go with your attorney into the clerk’s office to see what you owe in court costs and fines. If you are placed on probation, then you will have to complete a form and wait in the hallway to meet with your probation officer.
If a settlement is not reached, then you can set your case for a bench trial before Judge Hunter or Judge Carter, or you can bind your case over to the grand jury and ask for a jury trial.
If you are charged with a felony, then your attorney should try to plead your case down to a misdemeanor. If this is impossible, then your attorney should assess whether or not a preliminary hearing or probable cause hearing is necessary. Remember, in a preliminary hearing the DA simply has to prove that a crime occurred in Sumner County and that the person charged probably did it or maybe did it. It is NOT beyond a reasonable doubt, because it is not a trial.
There is a new dress code in General Sessions Court that your attorney should make you aware of up front. Also, you will likely be asked to pass a drug screen before your plea. If you can’t pass a drug screen and if it has been more than 30 days since your arrest, then the Judge will likely order you to serve two days in the county jail for coming to court unable to pass a drug screen. Be aware of this, and don’t make this mistake.
Finally, hiring an attorney does NOT guarantee you anything in court. However, having an attorney to represent you does give you an audience with the officer, the DA, and the Judge that you would not ordinarily have. Think about it. If you say something in your defense, then it sounds like you are making excuses. If your attorney says something in your defense, then it sounds like they are doing their job. The bottom line is, if you could go to jail, then you should hire an attorney. If you could end up with a permanent criminal record, then you should hire an attorney. If you could lose your driver’s license, then you should hire an attorney. If you could lose your gun privileges, then you should hire an attorney. Remember, the man who represents himself has a fool for a client!