“Do I Need A Lawyer?”
The practice of law is centered around questions. In trials, we ask witnesses questions to elicit testimony. As counselors we ask and answer questions of our clients. I recently touched on the common question of whether one should hire a lawyer or go with a public defender. Another question I commonly hear, often when talking to prospective clients or non-clients, is “do I need a lawyer for this?” There’s also the related, “What do I do when I go to court?”
If you are charged with a crime, whether a minor misdemeanor to a serious felony, you really should have an attorney represent you. Your liberty and rights are at stake. If you go to any Geographical Area courthouse in Connecticut, you’ll see many (often in a line) pro se defendants. Some are for motor vehicle infractions. Others are for criminal offenses. Some people might not have qualified for public defenders; others just might think that they do not need attorneys. It might be that it is the first or second appearance, they do not have a criminal or serious charges and are eligible for a diversionary program.
While any defendant should have an attorney, the question of whether one needs an attorney is something that only he or she could answer. They have to ask and answer whether they know and can do what lawyers do. Most courts for criminal and motor vehicle/infraction cases have the same rough courthouse procedure: you find out where your file is, have the file pulled and talk to the prosecutor. From there the case is either continued off the record, settled off the record or called in court before a judge. If you hire me or any attorney, we have the file pulled (often in an attorney file list), talk to the prosecutor and then talk to you. Attorneys are experienced in talking to prosecutors, who represent the state against defendants. Attorneys also know what the prosecutor says and how to weigh an offer or disposition. We can explain that to the client and advise him or her as to whether to accept or reject it. Back to the question issue, we can answer clients’ questions. Many times I have had a person call me about their case and then just ask question after question about going to court: where to go, what to do, what to say, what will happen. I typically respond: you have a lot of questions now before you even go to court, what are you going to do if you have questions in court and went by yourself? I won’t be there to answer them. If you are a defendant, the prosecutor is your adversary, so that isn’t the person to ask questions. The judge probably doesn’t want to be asked questions and it would probably be too late at that point anyway.
Attorneys also possess (or are supposed to possess) knowledge about their cases’ subject areas. In criminal and motor vehicle cases, that includes potential consequences, including the indirect collateral consequences (most notably on immigration and driver’s licenses but there are more).
Could you probably represent yourself in a minor criminal case yourself and still come out ok? Probably. People do it. But you might be able to do better with an attorney. You could also do much worse on your own. Again, there are the dreaded collateral consequences that you might not discover until it’s too late.
Talking to prosecutors, standing before judges and analyzing charges and dispositions aren’t always easy. I know that from experience.