| Read Time: 6 minutes | Criminal Defense

Whenever you appear in court, you need to dress appropriately. The judge, the jury, and the prosecutor will all see you. All of these people will have an enormous impact on the outcome of your case, and they will make snap judgments about you based on what you wear. You want to make a good first impression on them, and how you dress can make or break your chance to do that.

This article will tell you the dos and don’ts of dressing for a court appearance.

Why It’s Important: First Impressions are Key

Study after study has shown that an individual will form a first impression of another person within just seconds of meeting. According to recent neuroscience research, the human tendency to judge a person from first impressions is hard-wired into our brains. We just can’t seem to help making snap judgments during our first time meeting with a new person.

Even more surprising is the wide range of personality traits that first impressions cover. They go well beyond mere opinions about another person’s appearance or fashion sense. Studies show that people also make snap judgments on the other person’s intelligence, social status, friendliness, and truthfulness.

It’s easy to see how important a judge’s opinion of your truthfulness can be for your case. So you don’t want to waste any opportunity to make the best first impression possible.

It is also vital to make a good first impression on the prosecutor. Many people overlook the importance of impressing the prosecutor, but in many cases, the prosecutor holds the cards when it comes to deciding what type of plea to offer you. The prosecutor may offer a better plea deal if he or she believes you are a law-abiding individual who made a one-time lapse in judgment, rather than the type of person who likely is a repeat offender.

The importance of first impressions is magnified by the fact that studies show that they are very difficult to change once they are formed. This is because of the psychological principle of consistency. Once a person forms an idea, they are less likely to change their opinion because they would first have to admit that their initial opinion was wrong. People naturally do not like to admit they are wrong, so instead, they try to look for other evidence to support their initial ideas. This is why a negative first impression can be a curse, but a good first impression can be a blessing.

What to Wear: Dress Like It’s an Interview

Unless you’re auditioning to play back-up guitar in a punk rock band, you wouldn’t go into a job interview wearing a dirty t-shirt and torn jeans. But it amazes me how many times I see criminal defendants dressing poorly in the courtroom.

The courtroom is the place to dress professionally and put your best foot forward. A good rule of thumb is to dress for court like you are dressing for an important business interview.

For men, this will usually mean wearing:

  • A clean suit, or at the very least a sport coat and dress pants;
  • Dress shoes (conservative and closed-toe);
  • Matching dress socks;
  • A conservative-looking collared shirt (solid colors, no extravagant patterns)
  • A solid color tie.

For women:

  • A dress blouse;
  • Dress pants or a professional skirt;
  • Conservative dress shoes such as flats or low-heel pumps.

If you have any questions about what to wear for a professional business interview, numerous fashion magazines provide online articles that can help answer more specific questions. Also, don’t be afraid to ask your criminal defense attorney if you have a question. An attentive attorney will be more than happy to help make sure you put your best foot forward in the courtroom.

Proper Grooming

In addition to your clothes, you will also want to make sure that you are well-groomed and present a clean, neat appearance.

For men, this will include being either:

  • clean-shaven or having a neatly trimmed beard.

When it comes to hair, both men and women should:

  • Style hair in a neat, conservative fashion;
  • Do not look like you just rolled out of bed (i.e., not dirty, messy, or wet hair);
  • Schedule a haircut a week or two before your court date.

As for nails, they should be:

  • Neat, clean, and trimmed;
  • Any nail polish should be neutral or conservative (not flashy).

What Not to Wear: Don’t Dress Casually or Controversially

Avoid wearing anything too casual.

Don’t wear:

  • T-shirts;
  • Jeans;
  • Tennis shoes or sandals;
  • Baggy or ill-fitting clothes;
  • Anything exposing your midriff or underwear;
  • Hats;
  • Athletic wear;
  • A sundress;
  • Too much jewelry (especially if it jingles when you move);
  • Anything flashy or sexy (nothing you would wear on a Saturday night on the town).

Court is a business-like event. If you dress casually, the judge may think you are not taking the matter seriously, and he or she could take this as an insult. You may be rightfully upset about the fact you are a defendant in a criminal case. But no matter what you may think about the criminal charges against you, you always want to show that you are respectful of the process.

While the courtroom is not a casual venue, you also don’t want to dress overly formally or flashy. This is not the appropriate time to sport an evening gown or a tuxedo. Also, be sure that your dress clothes are conservative and don’t appear too stylish, or worse, tacky. Lovers of classic movies will remember the scene where Joe Pesci, playing the criminal defense attorney in My Cousin Vinny, waltzes into the courtroom wearing a red velvet suit. Even though I personally would think you were hilarious if you wore that, you don’t want to be that guy!

You should also avoid wearing anything controversial. Avoid any clothes with a political or social statement because you never know who you might offend—such as the judge. When I was a prosecutor, I saw more than one defendant charged with a drug crime walk into court wearing a shirt with a giant marijuana leaf on it. The defendant might as well have hung a big sign that said “guilty” around his neck. Regardless of your opinion on marijuana legalization, your day in court is not the time to express it.

Cover Any Tattoos, Remove Non-Traditional Piercings

In the 1950s, tattoos were the exclusive domain of bikers and sailors. Now, tattoos are everywhere and on everybody, from all walks of life, and it is common for many people to have tattoos. However, the social stigma against tattoos still exists in many circles, especially those that tend to be more socially conservative. Judges and jurors (who often consist of older members of society) have a greater chance of being one of those people with a more traditional view on tattoos. To be safe, you will want to err on the side of caution, and you should cover any tattoos that you have to the greatest extent possible.

The same is holds true for body piercings. While ear piercings on a woman are considered traditional, additional body piercings have become more common in recent years. To avoid creating the wrong impression in the courtroom, leave things such as nose and tongue piercings at home.

Silence Your Phone

While this next piece of advice does not have to do with dressing correctly, it is such a vital piece of information that it is worth mentioning here. Always silence your cell phone before going into court, or, better yet, turn it off completely.

Scottsdale Municipal Court, and most other courts in Phoenix, have specific courtroom etiquette guidelines that require you to silence your phones. If your phone rings in the courtroom, the bailiff might toss you out until the judge calls your case. I have seen this happen before. At the very least, you will bring negative attention to yourself, which is something you never want.

Bonus Tip: Always Speak Respectfully

You won’t often have the opportunity to speak in court, and your attorney will likely encourage you to exercise your right to remain silent. However, in certain court proceedings, you might have the opportunity to speak, such as during a settlement conference or sentencing. At these moments, you should talk respectfully and deferentially to the judge. Also, always refer to the judge as “your honor.”

Conclusion: Dress Conservatively to Convey Respect

All of the above points can be boiled down to one overriding purpose—showing respect to the court and creating a good impression. How you dress will convey a message to the judge. You want to make the best first impression on the judge possible. The message that you want to convey is that you respect him or her, you respect the proceedings, and you are a decent, trustworthy person. Dressing well for court conveys an unspoken message of respect, and this will subconsciously influence the attitude of people who see you in court—whether that be the judge or the prosecutor—in your favor.

As a person charged with a crime, you want to get every possible advantage that you can. So be sure not to miss out on the opportunity to create a good first impression by dressing inappropriately for your court appearance.

If you have been charged with a crime, call me today at (480) 702-1789, or contact me online to schedule your free consultation.

Author Photo

Stewart Salwin

Stewart Salwin is the founder and lead attorney at Salwin Law Group, a criminal defense law firm based in Scottsdale, Arizona, just outside of the greater Phoenix area. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and Harvard Law School, where he was taught criminal law by world-renowned defense attorneys.

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