Can I Represent Myself In A Criminal Case?

The U.S. Constitution gives persons accused of committing a crime the right to seek the counsel of an attorney. And, inclusive in the expressed rights is the right of said defendant to defend himself or herself.

This is known as “Pro Se”, which means “for himself” in Latin.

The process of “Pro Se” is further defined as the party in a lawsuit who appears in court without benefit of a lawyer.

In such cases, defendant has refrained from allowing the court to appoint an attorney, and does not wish to, or cannot afford to, hire one. That being the case, our system of laws allows the party to appear on their own behalf.

Important: This is not an automatic right. Although the “Pro Se” defense is part of our court system, the defendant must first obtain permission from a Judge, who, having heard their explanation, will decide whether to allow the defendant to defend himself or herself.

It is entirely possible that the Judge may think that it is not a good idea.

The defendant should proceed with caution. If they represent themselves and don’t put forth a convincing enough argument, the “Pro Se” defendant may not “win” the case, in which case the sentence may be a stiff one.

If a defendant is still determined to defend themselves, they may wish to consult with an attorney who is on the same page as they are, so that they may share with the defendant the benefit of their experience, and prepare them for the possible court exchanges and questions.

Remember that most initial attorney consultations are free.

What Exactly Are The Rights of Someone Accused of a Crime?

The Sixth Amendment, as part of the Bill of Rights, is the amendment which addresses the right to a trial by a jury, as follows:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.

What Is The Process Immediately After A Defendant Has Been Accused?

Once a person is charged, it is possible that they may not be immediately put under arrest. For example, if a warrant is issued for their arrest, the defendant will have a chance to see a copy of the warrant which calls for their arrest.

After a defendant has been arrested, it is up to the prosecution to decide when they may appear for a court hearing. This usually happens within 48 hours of being taken into police custody.

This is referred to as the arraignment hearing. It may also be dubbed a preliminary hearing. Either way, it is at this (very brief) hearing that the defendant has a chance to ask for an attorney—or not.

If one is requested, the burden is on the defendant to prove that he or she cannot afford to hire private counsel.

It is also at this point in the proceedings that a person may indicate that they wish to represent themselves.

Can The Defendant Enter A Plea?

Yes. In most cases—and in most States—after the judge who presides at the court hearing makes sure that the defendant understands the charges being brought against him or her, the defendant is asked how they plead.

A plea of “no contest” means that, even ‘though the defendant does not agree with the charge, they will accept the court’s penalty.

If the defendant answers “guilty” or “no contest”, there will not be a trial. If the defendant enters a plea of “not guilty”, a trial by jury will take place.

What Are The Benefits to a Plea of “No Contest”?

If a “no contest” plea is entered, a civil lawsuit cannot be brought to bear against the defendant.

“Pro Se” Rights

Again, it is at the arraignment hearing that the defendant has the first opportunity to tell the Judge that they wish to exercise their “Pro Se” rights.

However, as long as the defendant speaks up about wanting to represent himself or herself fairly early on in the proceedings, they may still do so. This applies even if they have already either accepted a court appointed lawyer or hired one themselves.

Won’t A Pro Se Defendant Automatically Fail, as They Do Not Have the Skill That A Lawyer Does?

Not necessarily. One Pro Se pleading which was decided in the layperson’s favor resulted in this finding: “Allegations such as those asserted by petitioner, however inartfully pleaded,
are sufficient”… “which we hold to
less stringent standards than formal
pleadings drafted by lawyers.” Haines v. Kerner, – 404 U.S. 519 (1972).

OK. What Happens Now?

Once the Judge has heard the defendant say that they have decided to exercise their “Pro Se” rights, he or she will likely hold a special trial specifically to determine whether the defendant is competent to do so.

The defendant will be asked a few questions which will help to determine, in the court’s eyes, whether they are able to exercise the right to self-representation.

It is the intent of the courts to ensure that the defendant receives a fair trial.

Too, in the interest of ensuring that the trial protects the defendant’s rights and that everything proceeds as it should, a Judge may rule to have a “stand by counsel” waiting in the wings, ready to jump in should it be deemed necessary.

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