The Five Best Tips to Represent Yourself in Criminal Court
You’ve already heard some version of this: A person who acts as their own lawyer, has a fool for a client. Yet day after day, people accused of misdemeanors and felonies will go into court without a lawyer for one or more reasons:
- They want to avoid legal fees
- They do not think that the consequences will be that bad
- The Internet has convinced them they can handle their criminal case
- They do not believe a lawyer can help them
- The Public Defender is too overwhelmed with cases to help them
- They have a job of some kind and do not qualify for the Public Defender
One of the most important things a criminal defense lawyer can do for you is handle the settlement of criminal charges in order to minimize the damage. Nevertheless, whatever your reason for going to court without a lawyer’s, here are some helpful tips to help you represent yourself in criminal court.
Tip 1: Avoid denial.
Denial is definitely not a river in Egypt, ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance and denial produce intense pain and can cause a lifetime of suffering.
The single most common cause of denial during the criminal process can be summed up as My Friend Said: the opinions of people who are not experienced, criminal defense lawyers. MFS can be an uncle in Maine who was a police officer ten years ago, co-workers who have been arrested in the past, or a well meaning family member who ignorantly advises you to step on a legal land mine.
If you are going to criminal court without an experienced criminal defense lawyer, then you are already in a state of denial. Just don’t make it worse.
Tip 2: Accept the fact that you will not get the best plea bargain possible.
You are unrepresented and have no experience as a criminal defense lawyer. The prosecutor knows this and is going to try and sell you an unfavorable plea bargain. They know you don’t realistically know a good plea bargain from a bad one. After your release from jail, expect longer probation time, additional probationary requirements such as no alcohol for a year, frequent and random drug tests, fines, and burdensome financial and counseling requirements. Forget about diversion programs – unless they are twice as long, expensive and burdensome than if you are represented. This is to set you up for a violation and more punishment.
Tip 3: Be aware of the increased risk of incarceration and be prepared for jail time.
This step has two parts: realistic risk assessment and pre-court preparation.
Most people are not very realistic when it comes to criminal court risk assessment, especially if they have never been in trouble before. This leads to “Courthouse Surprise”, an unexpected jail or prison sentence. However, those with “minor” or “juvenile” criminal records routinely get more much more jail time if they become victims of Courthouse Surprise than first offenders. A realistic risk assessment means expecting to leave the courthouse in handcuffs on the jail transport bus.
If you are prepared for imprisonment at your first court date, then you can plan to minimize the impact. You should prepare for child care, loss of time at work, pet care, and anything else that needs to be taken care of during your incarceration. Get a copy of the local jail’s Inmate Handbook, learn the local jail’s policies and procedures before court, so you and your family are not caught unprepared by courthouse surprise.
Step 4: Consider jail time instead of probation.
If you can convince the prosecutor to talk to you (which will be a hurried conversation at the courthouse on a break in most cases), your best bet is a conviction, straight jail time, and no probation. When unrepresented people get probationary sentences, they are usually so loaded up with extra conditions that they are a probation violation waiting to happen. For example, thirty days of straight time is far better than ten days followed by probation, a violation, a No Bond arrest warrant, and another thirty to sixty days in jail – before being placed back on probation and risking violation again.
To compensate for your lack of criminal law experience and knowledge, start low, but expect your first offer to be rejected, countered with more jail time, or a split sentence of jail and probation to follow. A simple example: don’t offer thirty days in jail on a first offense misdemeanor. Instead, offer five or less with the knowledge that you will end up serving more.
Step 5: Avoid a trial at all costs.
Legally, a judge cannot punish you for exercising your right to a trial. So, if you lose at trial – especially if you testify – fully expect to get the maximum sentence.
Wait. How is this possible if the judge cannot punish you for exercising your right to a trial? Very simple: the judge will say nothing on the record that could result in a reversal on appeal. You will spend up to sixty days in jail if it is a second degree misdemeanor (disorderly conduct, no valid driver’s license, etc.), ninety to one hundred and eighty days in jail for charges such as Reckless Driving and first offense DUI, and up to a year in jail for a first degree misdemeanor (possession of marijuana under twenty grams, battery, etc.).
In the final analysis, you may wish to reconsider hiring a lawyer.
The Cobb Law Firm
1992 Lewis Turner Blvd, Suite 101-B
Fort Walton Beach, FL 32547
Phone: (850) 466-1522