The Pitfalls of Going Pro Se as Your Own Attorney

The Pitfalls of Going Pro Se as Your Own Attorney

There is a long-standing tradition in American jurisprudence—and, indeed, in English jurisprudence likely pre-dating the very existence of American jurisprudence—that a person has the right to represent him or her self in court. Representing yourself is known under the law as proceeding “pro se,” which is Latin meaning “for oneself, or one’s own behalf.”

While the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to be represented by counsel, the Supreme Court conversely has held that the Sixth Amendment by implication guarantees a defendant the right to proceed without counsel, at least in state criminal proceedings. A criminal defendant’s right to represent himself or herself in federal court is codified in federal law. In both instances, the decision to represent oneself must be knowing, voluntary, and intelligent, with knowledge of the disadvantages involved.

Of course, the “intelligent” requirement does not require that a defendant have the skills or education of an attorney. To hear some tell it, “intelligent” might not even require intelligence. After all, there is a saying going back to at least the early 1800s that “that every man who is his own lawyer, has a fool for a client.” Don’t be a fool, or at least don’t have a fool for a client. The risks are too great.

There Is No Reason to Face Criminal Charges Without Assistance of Counsel

Under the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, you have a right to counsel, regardless of whether you can afford a lawyer, if you are facing criminal charges that carry the potential for incarceration. If you face imprisonment of at least a year, you have a right to counsel during questioning, trial, and sentencing, regardless of your ability to pay. This right applies in both federal and state criminal courts, although state courts can be slower to actually provide counsel because of funding issues, leading to long delays in representation.

While some estimates indicate that 80 percent of state court criminal defendants cannot afford an attorney, “cannot afford” can be a relative thing. It might be true that you “cannot afford” a shiny Dodge Charger, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one in your driveway. What you “cannot afford” depends upon the alternative. It seems more likely that you “cannot afford” to go to jail, even if only for a few months. Make that a few years, and that lawyer is starting to look a lot more affordable, even if you don’t qualify for a court-appointed counsel.

Further, even if you qualify for court-appointed counsel, how many months can you spend in jail waiting for that counsel to be available for you bail hearing? How many car payments, mortgage payments, missed weeks of work will it take before counsel is no longer something you “cannot afford?”

Going forward with your case pro se is only marginally smarter than sitting in jail waiting for court-appointed counsel to get you out on bail. And depending upon how bad the outcome of your pro se representation turns out to be, it is entirely likely that going pro se won’t be even a little smarter than waiting in jail for your state-appointed attorney.

If you are facing federal charges, of course, the nightmare scenario of waiting forever to actually get court-appointed counsel likely won’t occur. The federal system for court-appointed counsel is generally fairly prompt. Is that something you want to gamble on? As with state charges, while you are guaranteed the right to representation by counsel if you face charges for which you can be incarcerated—generally for at least a year—even with federal charges, you could wait a while for counsel to be available. Awhile could include sitting in jail waiting for your bail hearing—and for your court-appointed attorney to be available for a bail hearing. It happens.

Going to Court Pro Se Is a Recipe to Lose Your Case

There are innumerable ways for you to lose your case when you choose to go pro se. You don’t know court procedures, and the prosecutor does. You could easily lose because you can’t meet all the requirements to defend your case because you don’t know what they are. You also could lose for failing to follow required court procedures, again because you don’t know what they are. Without even getting into the substance of your case, there are a seemingly never-ending number of ways to lose your case just because you don’t know what you’re doing, including:

  • You aren’t good at meeting deadlines
  • You don’t express yourself well in writing
  • You aren’t available during regular business hours
  • You need legal advice but don’t have time to do research
  • Your case might require expert testimony
  • You don’t understand the rules of discovery and how to get the information you need

Obviously, you are not a suitable stand-in for a trained and experienced attorney when it comes to facing criminal charges. You need to be out of jail and making a living to be able to afford an attorney, and you need an attorney to be out of jail and making a living. The choice seems easy.

If You Are Facing Criminal Charges in DuPage, Kane, or Cook County, Don’t Represent Yourself – Contact the Criminal Attorneys of Martin & Kent, L.L.C.

Representing yourself against criminal charges is virtually a guarantee that you will be convicted. Without any knowledge of the law, courtroom tactics, legal procedure, you are always going to be outclassed by the prosecutors, who under such circumstances will almost always obtain a conviction. Depending upon the nature of the charges you face, the consequences you will face from such a conviction range from bad to horrific.

Don’t expose yourself to those possibilities. Call the criminal attorneys of Martin & Kent, L.L.C. We have extensive experience with the criminal justice system and can help you get through the legal process smoothly. For a consultation in DuPage, Kane, or Cook County, contact us 24 hours a day at (630) 474-8000.



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