People who represent themselves lack specialized knowledge and experience. While attempting to plead their case, they may say things that hurt their case. For example, facts the accused believes support his case may not be a legal defense to the charge. Remember that the prosecutor is not your lawyer, so do not ask them for help or legal advice.
Your emotions will cloud your arguments
Persons representing themselves tend to get nervous and become defensive under pressure. Instead of attacking the evidence, you may resort to making emotional arguments and reduce your effectiveness. Throwing yourself on the mercy of the court is not a substitute for a legal defense or a good trial strategy. Disrupting the court call and irritating the judge usually has a bad result on your case.
You must know and follow court rules and procedures
Litigants are required to know and follow the rules of court. The judge will not give you a pass on the rules because you are not an attorney and you do not have experience. For example, you cannot ask for help from the judge in the middle of a trial. Claiming ignorance of trial procedures is not a basis for your appeal. The judge is the tie breaker and will remain impartial even if you are losing the trial. The prosecutor is an attorney and you should also have the benefit of counsel to present your case.
The judge and court staff will not coach you
Court clerks are tasked with managing court records and providing information. However, they are prohibited from filing out forms or providing case evaluation or strategy. Judges and court staff are prohibited from giving you legal advice. The good news is that most judges will take the time to explain your rights and strongly encourage you to retain an experienced defense counsel; especially when jail is a possible sentence.
Self-representation is not worth the risk
Unlike civil court where money damages are at risk, criminal court sentencing poses the added risk of jail, obtaining a criminal record and the loss of driving privileges. Certain traffic offenses such as passing a school bus or railroad crossing may have mandatory minimum fines, conviction or suspension of your driver's license. A retail theft charge is a very hard case to remove from your record and has a bad affect on future job prospects. Obtain confidence and peace of mind, consult with an attorney as soon as possible after being charged with a crime, traffic or a municipal violation.
Additional resources provided by the author
State and Local Rules of Court
Your local County Bar Association