Written by attorney Brian Robert Dettman

Pro Se on a Criminal Charge? Three (of the many) Things to Think About.

A good lawyer is not cheap. However, failing to hire a lawyer may cost you more than the alternative. I often have friends and family ask me what I think of Pro Se Litigants (PSLs). The response I hear from most lawyers is that a "person representing (him/her)self has an idiot for a lawyer." While I do not believe that PSL's are idiots, there are certain limitations to representing yourself. Here are three examples:

First issue: the legal process is highly complicated and specialized. There are rules of the court, procedures, statutes, and general law that every (good) attorney knows. Googling case law and searching AVVO for answers can set you in the right direction, but will not enable you to successfully defend a criminal charge. I often see PSL's in court filing motions that clearly took a lot of time to write (like a motion to dismiss), but have absolutely no way of succeeding because they are not the appropriate motion. You can argue with a judge till you are blue in the face that the charges are inappropriate, but it is up to the State to determine what to charge--and then to prove it.

Lets say that you make it to trial (and get through picking a jury). You want to get up and tell the jury that you are innocent and the charges are unfounded. The first problem is that a PSL will not understand the rules of evidence. For example, every time I have watched a PSL give an opening statement the statement is an argument--and it always goes horribly wrong. The PSL gets up and starts arguing why they are right and the prosecutor is wrong. The prosecutor objects to the argument and the judge sustains. The PSL gets visibly mad because they don't understand why they cannot tell their side of the story and then comes across as unreasonable to the jury (never a good impression). Under the rules of evidence this is the appropriate outcome. The opening is not an argument.

In addition, there are are a bounty of objections that the PSL needs to know, but does not. While they may be familiar with the classics like hearsay and badgering from Law and Order, there are other objections like speculation, leading, narrative, and beyond the scope that are second nature to a trial attorney, but often unknown, un-caught, or improperly argued by a PSL.

Second issue: the other courtroom participants know what they are doing. The prosecutor knows that you didn't go to law school and don't practice criminal law. This means that they really don't have an incentive to meaningfully bargain with you about your charges. When a prosecutor negotiates with an experienced criminal defense attorney both sides have a idea about the strengths and weaknesses of a case. Both sides also know when they are getting a fair plea bargain or need to go to trial.

Along this line of thought, judges will not be able to assist you. In fact, judges have to treat you the same as any lawyer in the court room. Do not think judges will be rooting for the underdog. To be honest the judges are likely annoyed that they have to explain the process to the PSL (although they will tell you otherwise).

Last issue: the stakes are high. When a person is charged with a crime their liberty is at issue. There is the real possibility of spending time in jail or prison. There is also the possibility of facing serious fines, annoyances, and inconveniences. When you think about it the "cost" of your freedom isn't something to mess around with. Lets say an attorney costs 2K to defend a DUI. What you are paying for is that attorney's knowledge, experience, and skill. Lets say you fail to hire that attorney. You defend as a PSL and lose. In this example you saved 2K. However, losing the DUI costs you your license, freedom, and jacks up your insurance rates. Clearly, this is more "expensive" than paying 2K. On the other hand you could hire the attorney. In this case at least you have a chance of picking apart the DUI or using the attorney's bargaining power to get a better deal from the State (say a six month DL suspension instead of a 12 month suspension). Sure, 2K isn't cheap, but the alternative is much worse.

Think about these things before you decide to become a PSL. I've handled and seen thousands of cases. Not once have I seen a PSL come out on top...

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