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Criminal Law: The Folly of Representing Yourself in Court.

Posted By Cliff Tuttle | May 2, 2009

Posted by Cliff Tuttle

Acting as your own lawyer in a criminal trial is like trying to play the piano in a public recital without lessons or practice. Yet criminal defendants do it and it inevitably seals their fate. Yes, there are probably exceptions that have occurred from time to time in the history of the world. But if there are, they are the kind of strange events that prove the rule.

If you think you ever might consider representing yourself in a criminal case, read this article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette by Daniel Malloy.

The fact is, very few people should be representing themselves in any case, even lawyers. Being personally involved in the outcome changes your perspective and affects your judgment. Talking too much is always dangerous, but especially so for the self-represented. Every time you open your mouth, you are in effect testifying. In fact, as every successful trial lawyer knows, everything you say and do in court alters the judge’s and jury’s perception of you and your case. Just sitting up straight and looking sincere and respectful will probably be enough of a challenge under this kind of stress.

Trust me. You can’t think on your feet when you are preoccupied thinking about your fate.

But the most important reason why you, or any party to a court proceeding of any kind, needs a lawyer is that the lawyer has the training and experience appropriate to the task and you in almost all cases do not. This disparity is painfully apparent when a represented party and an unrepresented party face each other before a magistrate or in an arbitration.

The unrepresented party usually does not know the rules. In the process, a pro-se (“for self”) litigant cripples the case with a host of predictable rookie mistakes. He or she is chastised for speaking out of turn, making a speech when it is time to ask a question or trying to interrupt. (Q: “Can I say something? A:”No. You’ll have your turn.”)

The case often fails because key evidence is missing or not presented properly. This make cases harder for magistrates and arbitrators, who frequently coach the hapless over the rough spots and bend over backwards trying to be fair. But in the end, a case that could have been proven but isn’t, will lose.

Going back to the criminal arena, there are other reasons apart from presentation of the case why you need a lawyer. The lawyer can talk to the police officer in a way that you cannot. In retrospect, after reviewing the evidence and your prior criminal record (or hopefully, lack of one) the officer may be willing to consent to a guilty plea to a lesser charge. Thus, a misdemeanor could be disposed of at pretrial by pleading guilty to a summary offense, such as the old standby, disorderly conduct. Without proper representation, you lose the chance to obtain a satisfactory outcome at the pretrial hearing.

In addition, you may be eligible as a first time offender for ARD (accelerated rehabilitative disposition). This program was adopted to protect non-violent first offenders, especially those involved in DUI arrests, from the stigma of a criminal conviction. You would have a period of several months of probation, pay a fine, receive attend counseling and education sessions and after successful completion of the requirements, start over with no record of a conviction. But to participate in ARD you must have a lawyer. The court will not accept your waiver of the right to trial unless the record reflects that you have reviewed the alternatives with counsel and are doing so with full knowledge of the consequences.



CLIFF TUTTLE has been a Pennsylvania lawyer for over 45 years and (inter alia) is a real estate litigator and legal writer. The posts in this blog are intended to provide general information about legal topics of interest to lawyers and consumers with a Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania focus. However, this information does not constitute legal advice and there is no lawyer-client relationship created when you read this blog. You are encouraged to leave comments but be aware that posted comments can be read by others. If you wish to contact me in privacy, please use the Contact Form located immediately below this message. I will reply promptly and in strict confidence.

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