What happens at a first appearance in District Criminal Court can vary from county to county. In general, the goal of a first appearance (the first court date you have after being charged with a crime) is to answer one main question: What do you want to do about a lawyer?
First, an Assistant District Attorney will "call the calendar," meaning he or she will read out the names of everyone who has court that day. It is important to arrive early and be in your seat when court opens, so that you do not miss your name being called.
Typically, the Assistant District Attorney will make an announcement before the calendar is called to let you know how you should respond. Listen and follow his or her directions. When your name is called, it is likely that the Assistant District Attorney will call you to the front of the courtroom.
In Davidson County, where I primarily practice, there is a red box outlined on the floor behind the "defense table" that you should stand in. Make sure you hands are out of your pockets and your sun glasses are not on top of your head.
The Judge will tell you what you are being charged with and the maximum time you could receive in jail if you are convicted.
Next, the Judge will ask you what you want to do about a lawyer. You have three options:
1) Represent yourself
2) Hire a Lawyer
3) Request Court Appointed Counsel
When answering, speak loudly, clearly and respectfully. Your answer should ONLY be one the three options above. This not the time to explain yourself, discuss guilt/innocence, point out unfair practices or ask extensive questions. There will be a time for all of those conversations later - but now is not the time.
Once the question of what you would like to do about an attorney is answered and arranged, you will typically be given your next court date and told weather or not you are free to leave. Never leave the courtroom unless you have been excused. It is ok to politely ask the Judge if you are free to go once you are given your court date.
For additional information about what each of your three representation options entail, see Part II of this blog post "First Appearances Part II: Representation Options Explained."