The Dangers of Representing Yourself in a Criminal Case
With over 30 years of experience as a criminal defense attorney, I am often asked, “Do I really need a lawyer for this? Can’t I do it myself?” While there is always the option to represent yourself (doing this is called proceeding PRO SE), it’s not necessarily the best idea. In fact, there is an old saying in the Law community that says, “The person who represents themselves has a fool for a client”.
Why? You might be asking… well there are several reasons why representing yourself is not a good idea, which we will go into below, but the most obvious and most important one is this… No matter how bright you are, you do not have the knowledge of the law and the years of experience the criminal defense attorney has and the criminal justice system is not going to wait while you get up to speed. In fact, most people who are lawyers themselves always hire an attorney to represent them when they need help.
Criminal defense attorneys, like all lawyers, have spent years learning the ins and outs of the law. They went to college, law school, studied for and passed the Bar exam, and have spent years training and perfecting the skill set needed to be proficient trial attorneys.
All that being said, we want to take the time to share with you…
“What can an attorney do that I can’t do?”
Help you while you are being investigated for a crime. While there are some criminal cases which arise from something a person does in front of a police officer (ie. a DUI, etc.), many criminal cases result from investigations where you are suspected of committing a crime (child abuse, child pornography, drug distribution, fraud, etc.). Having a criminal defense attorney working for you while you are being investigated and even before you are charged can make a tremendous difference in how things turn out for you. In some cases, we may be able to keep you from ever being charged with a crime. Dealing with the police while you are the subject of an investigation is not recommended. Having an experienced criminal defense attorney to “run interference” between you and the police is extremely important; you should not attempt to do this yourself.
Pretrial Motions: In criminal court, the fight begins long before you ever set foot in a courtroom. You may have actual defenses to prove you’re innocent or that the police acted improperly, but many (often most) of those defenses need to be filed with the court very early on in your case, usually only weeks after you are charged. An experienced criminal defense attorney knows the defenses that need to be filed before trial. In many instances, an attorney will obtain a Suppression Hearing for you to argue motions in advance of your trial. If your criminal defense attorney is successful, he/she may get your case dismissed before you ever have to go to trial. If you were to attempt to represent yourself, the outcome may not be in your favor.
Pretrial Discovery: An experienced criminal defense attorney will obtain discovery from the prosecutions office and should then review it carefully with you. In many instances, there will be a need to get additional information to support your case. This requires the filing of a Motion for the Issuance of a Subpoena for the Production of Tangible Evidence Prior to Trial. Most attorneys who are not experienced dedicated criminal defense attorneys will not know how or why to do this; the individual representing themselves, for reasons noted above, really has very little chance of being able to do this properly.
Rules of Criminal Procedure: Criminal court proceedings follow very specific and detailed procedures during trial. Not knowing these procedures can be a real problem. Imagine trying to play a game without knowing the rules before you begin, and then imagine your opponent is highly skilled and has been playing that game for years; that is what your trial will be like if you walk in without a lawyer…your chances of winning in this situation are not that great.
Cross-Examination: An attorney who is trained to try criminal cases (and most are not) will often prepare their questions for opposing witnesses in advance of trial. When that attorney walks into the courtroom they should have all of their exhibits marked and ready to use when questioning the prosecution’s witnesses. Not only is proper preparation necessary, knowing what not to ask of a witness is as important as asking the right questions. This skill set is not something the average person has and takes most lawyers years to perfect.
Self-incrimination: Most people want to tell their side of a story. It’s true in life and it’s true in a courtroom. Unfortunately, few people are able to truly manage their own responses and emotions when sitting on a witness stand.
If you choose to testify in your own case and you have an experienced, skilled, criminal defense attorney, that attorney can protect you from harassing questions thrown at you by a prosecutor. Your attorney can also object to questions you might be asked by claiming that the questions are irrelevant to the central issue of your case, and in some instances, while a question might be allowed, there is a balancing between the prejudicial impact of the potential answer against you and the probative value of the question to the State’s case. These are often delicate legal considerations that require someone skilled in criminal defense law to properly protect you. Now imagine you are representing yourself! How do you do all these things while sitting on the stand as a witness?
Hopefully, this list of things an attorney can do for you will help you to see the true value of hiring a criminal defense attorney. While you are legally allowed to represent yourself, we suggest that you consider all the consequences of that choice before making moving forward.
Don’t take chances with your freedom, contact a criminal defense attorney today. It never hurts to schedule a free consultation.
At Craig M. Kadish & Associates, LLC, we have been defending those charged with crimes for over 30 years; we are widely considered one of the premier criminal defense practices in the State of Maryland. We are on call at night, on weekends, and any other time that you need to speak to your lawyer. In this time of Covid-19, be comforted knowing that when you reach out, your call will be answered and your case will be given the attention it deserves and that you should expect.