Should you represent yourself in court?

Published 10:06 am Tuesday, January 12, 2021

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Abraham Lincoln said, “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” Can a person represent himself in court? Yes. The law provides that anyone can be a defendant and appear pro se (without a lawyer.) Is this a good idea? In 95% of cases, it is a terrible decision that almost always carries negative consequences.

The vast majority of defendants are represented by lawyers. There is a good reason for this. A criminal defense lawyer is trained in the art of defending a person charged with a crime. The lawyer also has knowledge of the rules of evidence, complicated procedural issues, and knows how to make and handle objections in court.

Sometimes, a person exercises his right to represent himself. When I hear this announcement made by a pro se defendant, I always cringe. There are a number of reasons why some people choose to represent themselves. For instance, they may believe that they are more capable of handling the case than any lawyer. Others have such a distrust of the criminal justice system that they would rather take their chances going it alone.

However, most people would not perform their own surgery or replace the roof on their home. Instead, they would hire individuals specifically trained in those fields to do so. The legal field is no different. If a defendant wants to ensure the best possible result, he should hire an experienced lawyer to advocate for him in court. If a defendant cannot afford a lawyer, he can apply to have a public defender to represent him. Representing yourself in court just does not work. Here is why:

1. People who represent themselves lack specialized knowledge and experience. While attempting to plead their case, they may say things that significantly damage their case. For example, facts that the defendant believes support his case may not be a legal defense to the charge.

The law is complicated. Navigating a courtroom and the procedures within it is daunting; even for matters that seem simple. Just because a defendant has the ability to walk into a courtroom and represent himself, does not mean that he is going to do it well.

While the defendant may know the case better than anyone, he cannot be an effective advocate.

The defendant will face a prosecutor on the opposing side. The prosecutor has the knowledge, training, and experience that the defendant lacks.

That prosecutor is keenly focused on a conviction.

Additionally, the defendant does not know the prosecutor, the clerk, or the bailiffs in the courtroom. He has never interviewed testifying witnesses, argued motions, or presented neither opening statements nor closing arguments. He does not know the rules of evidence or when to object to the admission of evidence and have never argued evidentiary objections with opposing counsel. Many other pitfalls await the pro se defendant as well.

2. Emotions always cloud sound strategic judgment. The best lawyers have one thing in common. They are able to focus on winning without the distractions associated with emotional thought.

Persons representing themselves tend to get nervous and become defensive under pressure. Instead of attacking the evidence, they may resort to making emotional arguments and eliminate any chance of being effective. Throwing yourself on the mercy of the court is not a substitute for a legal defense or a good trial strategy. Disrupting the court and irritating the judge usually has a bad result as well.

3. Pro se defendants must know and follow court rules and procedures. While some judges will give a pro se defendant a little leeway, the defendant is required to know and follow the rules of court. The judge will usually not give him a pass on the rules because he is not an attorney and does not have experience. The defendant cannot ask for help from the judge in the middle of a trial.

4. The judge and court staff will not coach a pro se defendant. Court clerks are tasked with managing court records and providing information. However, they are prohibited from filling out forms or providing case evaluation or strategy. Judges and court staff are also prohibited from giving legal advice.

5. The consequences are not worth the risk. Unlike civil court where money damages are at risk, criminal trials pose the added risk of jail and / or prison time, obtaining a criminal record, and the loss of driving privileges.

Now, there are some exceptions to the rule. For instance, if driver who is 21 years or older and does not have a CDL license is given a minor traffic ticket like speeding 10 miles above the speed limit, common sense would dictate that he would not need a lawyer unless there are other extenuating circumstances. In this example, the driver would need to either pay the fine or appear in court so that he can negotiate with the prosecutor.

If you find yourself in a situation where you are unsure whether you need a lawyer, it would not hurt to just pick up the phone and call a lawyer or two with reputations for honesty.