One of the first questions most people ask when accused of committing a crime is, “do I need a lawyer?” This is particularly true if the charge is “just” a misdemeanor. If you’ve been charged with a more serious offense, the answer is easy – the stakes are incredibly high for you, and you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side.
But if your case is “just” a misdemeanor, the question is a bit more complicated. Theoretically, you’re facing up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. The reality is that relatively few people convicted of misdemeanors go to jail at all, and it’s very, very rare that someone would actually serve 90 days for a misdemeanor offense.
But there are other consequences to consider as well. Even “just” a misdemeanor can have profound consequences on your future. For example, a misdemeanor conviction can cause you to lose your rights to gun ownership. For many people this may not be a big deal, but for people who enjoy hunting it can mean the end of a treasured pastime. Misdemeanor cases can impact your right to drive, your ability to get a job or housing, the cost of your auto insurance, and more. For non-citizens, they can cause immigration issues as well. Worse yet, often no one – not the judge, the court staff, or the prosecutor – is going to tell you about them. You won’t know until it’s too late.
This isn’t true of all misdemeanors, of course. The trouble is, it’s difficult for you to know. Representing yourself can be a reasonable choice. But you’d be crazy to do it without at least taking advantage of a consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney.
When I was a prosecutor, I dealt with people who chose to represent themselves all the time. And the reality is this – a person who is representing themselves cannot fight back. They’re stuck with whatever plea offer the prosecutor feels like giving them. Sometimes that’s a fair and reasonable deal and sometimes it isn’t. There is no way that an untrained person can mount a capable defense to legal charges. To do so requires a knowledge of criminal law, criminal procedure, constitutional law, evidentiary law, and so much more. The prosecutor has this knowledge. Going to court without someone on your side is a gamble with your future.