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What to know about representing yourself in criminal court

How to represent yourself and when you should use a lawyer instead

After you've been arrested for a crime, you have the right to a lawyer. If you can't afford your own private criminal defense attorney, the court will appoint you a public defender. While a public defender will not have as much time as a private attorney to build your defense, their knowledge and experience is better than going to court alone. Before you decide to represent yourself, consider the consequences.

The dangers of representing yourself in court

Serving as your own legal representative isn't just challenging. It can lead to some serious and troubling consequences. Errol Cook, a DUI attorney in California, lists some of the potential downsides to representing yourself in court:

  • If you're alone at the arraignment hearing, you could be taken into custody right away with a high bail. You might have to call collect to hire an attorney from jail.

  • Judges and prosecutors would prefer that you have a lawyer. These are busy legal professionals, and if you are unfamiliar with legal terms, or if you try to interpret the law without fully understanding it, the judge may lose patience.

  • It might take a while for you to get a copy of the police report about your arrest, and this delay can leave you without vital information.

  • You won't get priority on the court docket. You could end up waiting all day for your hearing.

  • The prosecutor in your case cannot legally give you advice.

If you defend yourself, the worst case scenario is that you will end up digging yourself into an even deeper hole, legally speaking. A lawyer might have been able to secure a reduced fine or reduced jail time for you. However, if you do not successfully defend yourself, you could end up facing a long and stressful appeal process.

Qualifying for a public defender

Not everyone is entitled to the use of a public defender. However, if you meet the following criteria, you are likely to qualify:

  • You do not have the financial means to hire a private attorney. In some instances, you might be asked to provide documentation that proves that you are unable to hire your own attorney. You may also have to get estimates from a few private attorneys and submit those estimates to the court.

  • You have been charged with a felony or misdemeanor, and you can face imprisonment if convicted.

  • Children and people with intellectual disabilities might be entitled to public representation regardless of their other circumstances.

If you qualify, consider consider accepting the help of a public defender. While the average public defender has a significantly high case load compared to the average private criminal defense lawyer, they still have the qualifications and experience to help your case.

When to start using a lawyer

Don't make the mistake of thinking that you can get partway through your legal proceedings by yourself and only use an attorney when things get tough. It is your constitutional right to have an attorney present when you are in police custody and the police are questioning you. This is when you can start to form a relationship with your lawyer, whether you hire a private attorney or use a public defender.

If you decide to represent yourself

Serving as your own legal defender is generally a bad idea. However, if you are confident you can handle it, you need to know how to represent yourself in criminal court:

  • You must first gain permission to represent yourself. This might involve a hearing where a judge asks you questions so the court can be sure that you know what you're getting yourself into.

  • The judge might appoint standby counsel for you so a lawyer can step in should you need extra help.

  • Be diligent about doing legal research, and be respectful of others in the courtroom who have more legal experience and knowledge than you do.

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