Are You About to Suffer Courthouse Surprise?

Most first offenders have no clue about how the legal system works. The problem is, they think that they do or think that they can, with a cup of coffee and a few minutes on the Internet. Here’s the truth:

If you were stopped by the police and given a Criminal Summons (a citation that looks like a traffic ticket, but has a mandatory court date on it), or if you were arrested, then you can be sentenced to go to jale. And it doesn’t matter how you spell it if you are there.

Yet – surprisingly – many people (especially first offenders) are extremely nonchalant about going to jail.

Jane1 was pulled over for speeding six miles an hour over the speed limit and given a traffic ticket with a fine amount on the back. A “forty-something” soccer mom and business owner, she was also given a second citation for No Valid Driver’s License. There was no fine amount, and the nice officer gently explained that she shouldn’t worry, just to go to court on time so an arrest warrant would be issued. He also assured her that although it was for a criminal matter, it was “just a misdemeanor” and that “she would be alright.” The officer’s words reassured her until she looked it up online and found out that the charge carried a maximum penalty of sixty (60) days in jail.

Naturally, this concerned her. But two of Jane’s friends had been arrested before and neither went to jail, plus the officer had been so reassuring. “First offenders never go to jail,” one of her friends assured her, “you’ll just get a fine.” Jane still called a couple of lawyers, but thought they were too expensive. So, she decided to own up to her mistake like she always told her children to do and went to court by herself to take her medicine.

I just happened to be sitting in the courtroom that day. The presiding judge was someone I’ve literally known since high school and graciously allowed the prosecutor and I to schedule a miscellaneous housekeeping matter at the end of the Arraignment Court docket. This is a huge courtesy, so I arrived early an took my seat in the attorneys waiting area.

As I waited, the next to last case was called and Jane stepped to the podium. She was nervous, but her voice was clear and she was dressed in professional business attire. She could have been mistaken for one of the lawyers.

But she wasn’t, and it showed. The judge saw something unrepresented people – and especially first offenders – never even think about: hidden red flags. Hidden red flags are simply anything in the case file that will cause a judge or prosecutor to want increased punishment. When I saw the judge take extra time reviewing the file on the judge’s courtroom monitor, I had a sinking feeling that comes from more than a quarter of a century of practicing law in precisely one area: something bad was about to happen to Jane and she had no clue. Jane didn’t have over twenty-five years of experience in criminal court.

Jane pled no contest, waived her right to a lawyer, and answered each of the judge’s questions regarding the voluntary entry of a plea of no contest. At the conclusion of the plea colloquy, the judge intoned solemnly, “I accept your plea as being freely and voluntarily entered and sentence you to sixty days in jail instanter.”

You could have heard a pin drop in the courtroom for a brief second. Then, Jane’s face exploded with tears as she tried in vain to say “but . . .”, because “instanter” is legalese that means “right now”.

We could hear her wailing in hallway as she was led away to jail in handcuffs.

Jane was another victim of courthouse surprise.

Pets go without food. Children come home to an empty house. Spouses are lighting up 911 when their partner never comes home. Jobs are lost. Careers are ruined. Businesses go under.

Are you reading this between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on a week day? If so, someone, somewhere, in Florida has, or will be, a victim of courthouse surprise by the end of the day. On some days, it will happen to hundreds. Courthouse surprise is a silent, statewide epidemic.

Courthouse surprise has one element: ignorance. Common examples include:

  • “My friend Said” – these friends can be literally anybody. From the retired police officer in New Jersey, an acquaintance with brush with the law, to lawyers who practice in other fields, My Friend Said is one of the top reasons large numbers of people are victimized by courthouse surprise.
  • “First Offenders Don’t Go To Jail” – this is simply not true. There is a very big difference between the maximum penalty, the minimum penalty, the likely penalty, and the exact penalty to be imposed. As an expert in the field, it is my professional opinion that it is almost always best to know what the judge is going to impose before the judge imposes it.
  • “I’m guilty, so a lawyer can’t help me” – this is actually when you need a lawyer the most: mitigating the legal damage from the incident.
  • “A lawyer is too expensive” – this is rarely a matter of not having the money, it is the lack of willingness to invest it.

This article would never have been written but for the fact that I ran into Jane at a social outing, she immediately recognized me, and wanted to speak with me privately. She asked a number of questions and then I had one: why didn’t she hire a lawyer who could have filed written pleadings to keep her out of Arraignment Court and review her case for any potential defenses and problem areas?

She listed out all of the areas above, and then added: “The cheapest lawyer was $1,500.00. I’ve easily lost more than five times that amount now and have a criminal conviction.” After we parted, I pulled her court file up with attorney access and analyzed her case: the red flag was obvious yet fixable, and her case should have been settled for $300.00 and an automatic dismissal upon payment to the Clerk of the Court.

Instead, Jane was just another victim of courthouse surprise.

Guest Author & Florida Criminal Law Expert Stephen G. Cobb was born and raised in Northwest Florida. He has practiced criminal defense law exclusively since 1990. He can be contacted by email at or via his website, UPDATE: The spelling of “jale”  for the word “jail” was not a typo. As Mr. Cobb explains, “I advise people to avoid behaviors that lead to “J-A-L-E” because it doesn’t matter how you spell it if you are there.”

1Not her real name.

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