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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

It's the Law: Strategies for Testifying in Court

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, September 2012
Radiohead Column

Do you know any resources for telecommunicators who have to testify in court?

Sincerely, Ms. Scale O'Justice

I couldn't pass up the opportunity to comment on this topic.  A few years ago, a friend of mine taught a class for telecommunicators that dealt with testifying in court.  So, with his permissioin, I will note some things that may help.

In this era of criminal and civil cases, public safety telecommunicators are being served subpoenas to testify at trial.  You may also receive a subpoena to give a deposition.  Testifying is not a part of training for public safety telecommunicators, but in the aftermath of several highly publicized trials in which telecommunicators testified, it's clear that they are as likely to be called to testify as police officers.  You may even be subpoenaed to testify against your agency or co-workers.

Criminal and civil trials have a lot of similarities and are conducted under the same court rules and procedures.  The difference is in the type of case brought before the court.

Criminal cases involve criminal acts (e.g., burglary, theft) that we associate with possible jail time.  A criminal trial occurs when the state charges the defendant with a violation of a law in the penal code.  In a criminal trial, the evidence has to demonstrate guilt beyond a reasonable doubt for the jury to find the defendant guilty.

A civil trial involves a claim by one party (e.g., a person, the state, a business) that the defendant caused them damage.  The determination of guilt in a civil trial is based on the preponderance of the evidence.  One found guilty cannot go to jail; compensation is usually monetary.

Let's say you've been served a subpoena.  It may direct you to appear at a law office to give a deposition or may direct you to appear in court to give trial testimony.

The prosecutor or civil attorney must have knowledge of all facts that may arise from the testimony of witnesses for the prosecution or defense.  If you're not sure your attorney understands a concept or topic you'll be testifying about, be sure to discuss it with them.  You know your job, and part of the education process is to show the attorney they can count on you and your testimony.

Tips for testifying:
Behave professionally -- on and off the witness stand.  This can influence the jurors, and you never know who's sizing you up.

Before the trial starts, familiarize yourself with the witness stand and the path you need to get to it.  This will allow you to walk confidently and directly to the stand.

Dress professionally -- and conservatively.  If you have a uniform, wear it; the uniform enhances your credibility.  Avoid flashy colors, and wear minimal jewelry.

When you're sworn in, look at the judge or jury and clearly say "I do."

Sit up straight, and look at the questioning attorney.  When answering the question, make eye contact with the judge or jury, whichever applies.  Answer all questions clearly and loudly enough for the judge and jury to hear you.  Do not nod.  The court clerk or judge will ask you to answer audibly, and it could appear you're unsure about your answers.  If the question is about distance or time and your answer is only an estimate, be sure you say so.

If you are asked whether you have talked to anyone about this case and you have, admit it.  There's nothing improper in discussing the facts of the case with attorneys, police officers or investigators prior to trial.

If a question cannot be truthfully answered with a yes or no, you have a right to explain the answer.

Keep your hands in your lap and away from your mouth.

If you need to ask the judge a question, address them as "your honor," and wait until the judge gives you permission to speak.

Listen carefully to the question asked, and make sure you understand it before answering.  If either attorney objects, stop talking, let the judge rule on the objection and then continue.  If you're not sure how the judge ruled, let them know.

If the other attorney asks a question you find objectionable, pause before answering and give your attorney time to object.  Avoid looking at your attorney when answering questions.  This looks like you're asking for help and the jurors might interpret this as a damaging question, even though your answer makes sense.

Avoid being combative and don't lose your temper.  Let attorneys get as nasty as they want.  They are likely trying to bait you.  Stay cool, and answer questions.

Don't be offended if you're told not to listen to testimony given by other witnesses.  No one wants your testimony altered by others' testimony.  In fact, you may be asked to leave the courtroom so you can't hear other witnesses' testimony.

If you make a mistake, admit it.  There could be bigger consequences if people think you are lying than if they think you made a mistake.

There are many other factors to consider when testifying, such as subpoenas, legal definitions, depositions, dirty lawyer techniques, sequence of events in a trial, etc.  Discuss procedures with your agency's attorney and/or the District/State Attorney.

Editor's note:  The opinions expressed herein are those of the columnist and do not necessarily reflect the views of APCO International.

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