The U.S. Constitution guarantees defendants charged with a crime the right to be represented and defended by a qualified, licensed attorney.  However, defendants sometimes refuse the help of an attorney based on personal confidence or experience in legal matters, a unique or unorthodox legal theory, a desire to throw caution to the wind to make their point in court, or a belief that the attorney is incompetent.

A 1975 U.S. Supreme Court case confirmed that the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution guarantee a criminal defendant the right to self-representation.  This is called “self-representation,” “pro se,” or “propria persona,” meaning “on one’s own behalf.”

Why Shouldn’t a Criminal Defendant Represent Herself?

Self-representation in criminal cases is usually ill-advised. Criminal charges, as opposed to civil, are interlaced with emotion, as the defendant faces incarceration, loss of reputation, and a social fall from grace. When a defendant represents herself, oftentimes her emotions can cloud the real legal issues. For this reason alone, a court-appointed defense lawyer will be helpful.

In addition, criminal court procedures
can be very complicated. Trained lawyers know how to play by the rules, so that cases can proceed as speedily and efficiently as possible. Prosecutors know these rules in and out, and will try their best to trip up a self-represented defendant on a technicality.  Prosecutors have seen many a case and have heard many an excuse – they know exactly how to kill the defenses offered by self-represented defendants.

Where Can a Criminal Defendant Representing Herself Find Legal Information?

That saying, in this information age, a defendant with the motivation, time, and aptitude can seek out an increasing number of Internet-based self-help legal references.  They can learn how to navigate the judicial system.

Where Is Self-Representation Most Common in Criminal Law?

Criminal self-represented defendants are often seen in traffic cases.  Traffic violations such as a driving under the influence (DUI), reckless driving, and endangering a passenger, are criminal misdemeanors and felonies.  Self-represented defendants are also seen in domestic abuse criminal cases.

Does a Self-Representing Defendant Really Need a Lawyer?

The decision to proceed as a pro se defendant will almost always be risky. If you represent yourself, your success will depend on your own knowledge of the law and whether you can argue your claim in the proper way. At the very least, you may wish to request an initial consultation with a criminal defense lawyer to determine what type of representation and legal stratagem best suits your case. It may also be wise to retain that lawyer as your legal coach if you truly desire to represent yourself.