The U.S. was founded on the premise that your right to freedom of expression is broad and irrevocable.
That said, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Case-in-point: A convicted arsonist who strode into a New York courtroom recently to attend his own sentencing hearing, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase, “Snitches Get Stitches.”
Our Birmingham criminal defense attorneys can think of few instances that show a greater lack of foresight. We’re also surprised that those defending him didn’t immediately advise him to at least turn the shirt inside-out so the messages was not visible.
The judge chastised the defendant, made him remove the shirt and then sentenced him to the maximum 15 years behind bars. He would later say that he wanted to “make a statement.” He had the right to do so. But now, his shirts will be chosen for him until 2030 or so.
The importance of proper courtroom attire and decorum can’t be understated. It’s true that your choice of clothing shouldn’t impact your ultimate sentencing. After all, you do have the right to express yourself. However, it’s also true that some judges take courtroom decorum extremely seriously.
What’s more, dressing and behaving appropriately – which need not be expensive – can only serve to help your credibility and ultimately your case.
Yet there are many other examples of poor courtroom clothing attire. Last year in Ohio, a teen convicted of killing three of his classmates arrived at his sentencing hearing wearing a t-shirt on which he had written the word, “Killer.” (He also later flipped his middle finger at the judge and the rest of those in the courtroom, before telling them he “masturbates to the memory” of their deaths. If nothing else, it probably helped the judge feel confident that he had reached the right decision in sending him to the maximum of life behind bars.)
Even in less serious cases, attire can make a difference. People have been jailed for wearing attire displaying profanity, for wearing shorts after being warned against it and even for chewing gum.
What you want to keep in mind is that many times in court proceedings, defendants are never asked to speak. Your attorney does that for you. What that means, however, is that what you wear and other non-verbal cues may be all the judge and/or jury have to go on.
Some of it is common sense. For example, you don’t want to wear a Coach purse into sentencing for a theft charge and then try to have your attorney argue that you can’t afford to pay the fine. (That happened in Minnesota a couple years ago.)
While every judge may have a different set of standards, you can play it relatively safe by abiding by the following general rules:
- Arrive early and be prepared.
- Wear business-like attire. No mini-skirts, t-shirts, tank tops, open-toed shoes or wild hairstyle.
- Keep your chewing tobacco, gum, cameras, food and drinks and cell phones either at home, in the car or tucked safely in your purse.
- Avoid wearing a hat or any head-covering, except if it is for religious reasons.
- Speak only when instructed to do so. Never interrupt or talk out of turn.
- Don’t argue with anyone, especially not the judge.
If you have questions about proper courtroom attire or behavior, consult with your defense attorney before you arrive in court.