A Checklist to Help You Decide Whether or Not You Should Attempt to Represent Yourself in a Criminal Case

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The old adage, "A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client," is often used as discouragement for the practice of self-representation in legal matters. In legal matters where much is at stake, such as cases where the accused can go to prison if convicted, the saying rings true, and professional assistance should be sought. However, in certain circumstances, there may be valid reasons for representing oneself in a criminal case. Several criteria should be met before making this decision, though. Below is a checklist of these criteria that can help you decide whether self-representation is a good idea or not.

The likely punishment if convicted is not severe

The most important factor in determining whether or not you should consider representing yourself in court is knowing the severity of punishment for the offense. This means you need to understand whether you are likely to receive a harsh sentence should you be found guilty of a crime. It is important to understand that there is a clear difference between the maximum penalty and that which is probable; as an example, even though the law in your state may provide for a prison sentence of one year for possession of a single ounce of marijuana, it is extremely unlikely that a convicted first-time offender will receive jail time for having one cigarette at the time of arrest or citation.

Knowing the maximum penalty is easy, as it can be found in public records, but understanding what is likely to happen may be a little more difficult. You will need to research public records of convictions in your jurisdiction as well as consult with individuals who have a first-hand knowledge of the courts. That may mean you need to hire an attorney for help, even if it is simply to provide quick guidance and advice.

You have no past criminal record

If you have not been in previous trouble with the law, other than minor traffic violations, then you are in a better position to represent yourself in a courtroom. However, should you have past convictions, you are opening yourself up to enhanced penalties in some instances as a repeat offender, and having an attorney to represent you is a must to prevent unpleasant surprises.

The cost of hiring an attorney greatly exceeds the fine amount

For some criminal cases, the maximum fine may greatly exceed the price of hiring representation. For instance, if the maximum fine receivable for littering is $100, it would not make sense to hire a criminal attorney for $1000.

The case can be easily settled without a trial

Not all criminal cases go to trial; in fact, only about 10 percent actually do. That means you may be in a position in which you will be able to negotiate a plea bargain without the need for an attorney, provided these other criteria have been met. In many jurisdictions, plea bargains are prearranged deals and handled routinely without much deviation from a scripted plan. However, if it appears that your case will need to go to trial or if you are not sure about this possibility, then you should always seek guidance from an attorney. The procedural complexities that take place during an American trial should be navigated by a lawyer, not by you.

You are not being held in custody

If you are not being held in custody, then you have greater access to legal resources and may be able to obtain what you need without worrying about information limitations. On the other hand, if you find yourself incarcerated for an extended period of time, you probably will not be able to obtain the necessary information to prepare your case. In addition, incarcerated individuals are limited by who they can contact and how often they can make contact as well. For those reasons, those who are in custody should obtain the services of an attorney who can work to present a strong defense.

You feel confident that you understand the law and legal proceedings

The law is complicated, and having a solid layperson's knowledge of its provisions as well as the actual procedures used in handling criminal cases is important if you plan to represent yourself. If you are unsure of your own background knowledge and lack confidence in your own abilities or emotional strength, then hiring a criminal lawyer is the only sensible option. Don't take a chance that you may miss something important by not having the proper knowledge.

If you are in need of a criminal-law attorney, then contact a firm such as Mesenbourg & Sarratori Law Offices to get started on your case.