3 Reasons Not to Represent Yourself
If you’ve been arrested, you need a lawyer. Unfortunately, private lawyers aren’t exactly cheap. If the court determines you can’t afford to hire one, then you’ll be assigned a public defender, but in most cases, public defenders just don’t have much time to sit and talk with each client individually. They’re often but not always concerned with obtaining a plea deal as soon as possible for each client. While the American Bar Association suggests that private lawyers shouldn’t take on more than 150 felony cases a year, there are public defenders representing more than 500 defendants in that time frame. Numbers like that are enough to make some defendants think they should just represent themselves. Here are three reasons that’s a bad idea.
You don’t know the law
The internet is a beautiful thing. But it also gives people a false sense of confidence about their knowledge of certain topics. Googling terms like habeas corpus doesn’t mean you’re qualified to appear in court as your own attorney. Watching every season of every franchise of “Law and Order” doesn’t mean that you’re an expert in the criminal justice system. People like to act as though they are a legal authority on issues, but this is the kind of self-deception that could land you a long prison sentence.
If you haven’t heard the cliche that “A person who represents himself in court has a fool for a client,” well, expect to hear it a lot if you decide to go pro se. An attorney who represents himself might be able to make a decent case, but the research on that is limited. If you haven’t gone through three years of law school and passed the bar exam, don’t even think about it. A public defender isn’t ideal, but it’s better than going to court and telling the judge you know what you’re doing because you were on the debate team in high school. That’s true even if you think the fact of your innocence should be glaringly obvious to everyone else in the courtroom.
Local attorneys have local connections
Every city, county, and state has its own set of quirks in the legal system. It took Louisiana until 2018 to repeal a Jim Crow-era law allowing a jury’s decision to be binding in felony cases even if only 10 out of 12 jurors agree. Oregon is the last remaining state to permit split-jury decisions in criminal cases, but even the Beaver State requires unanimous verdicts in murder trials.
Laws like that are a serious departure from the way we like to think our justice system works. But unless you lived in Oregon or Louisiana, you probably didn’t know such laws existed. A local lawyer with years or decades watching the local justice system at work is in a much better position to help you than someone who hasn’t been paying attention. Let’s say you get arrested for DUI in Denver. Denver criminal lawyers can tell you things that are impossible to know without regular access to judges and juries. Hiring a defense attorney who has a cordial working relationship with prosecutors is invaluable.
It’s a lot of work
Being arrested and charged with a crime is not a cakewalk. It’s emotionally draining even if you don’t represent yourself. You may already have trouble sleeping or focusing at work. Trying to write a motion to suppress evidence on your lunch break is not going to make things any better.
Debt isn’t great, but assuming debt to pay for attorney’s fees is often better than the alternative of representing yourself. If you have friends or family members who might be able to help you hire someone, then ask them. Don’t be surprised if they say no, but asking and getting shot down is a lot better than assuming you can defend yourself against criminal charges..