Occasionally, lawyers run into a prospective client who wants to defend himself—to act pro se—in court. If you follow these cases closely, you’ll see that self-defended cases rarely result in an acquittal. Do you have the right to represent yourself? Absolutely. Should you? Absolutely NOT.
The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution states that:
“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.”
For decades, courts have held that the right “to have the Assistance of Counsel” also allows a defendant the right to represent himself. But why would you want to?
Every lawyer can tell a story about a pro se client who knew he could prove the other party was lying, who felt he could argue with the police officer in front of a jury, or who was convinced they knew the law better than any lawyer. Or they thought lawyers were too expensive. Regardless of the motivation to represent oneself, there are serious practical and procedural problems to acting pro se in a criminal matter.
From the outset, very few defendants charged in a criminal case understand “the discovery process.” In discovery, the prosecution must provide all of the evidence and witnesses they intend to use against the accused. They must also provide any known evidence or witnesses that could show the defendant’s innocence. In most states, if the defendant has an alibi, he must disclose it to the prosecution early in the case or it might not be allowed in court. Attorneys understand these procedural requirements much better than a pro se defendant could.
An attorney may also hire a private investigator to interview witnesses. The investigator can testify during trial as to what a witness told them privately. A pro se defendant in a criminal case—the very person whose liberty is at stake—might not be allowed to conduct such interviews. And a pro se defendant’s testimony about what was said would be considered biased and might not persuade a jury.
An attorney understands how and when to file a motion to suppress evidence if such is appropriate. An attorney will also understand how the law is applied in the specific case and any possible statutory defenses the accused may have. A pro se defendant will almost always be at a distinct disadvantage in this regard.
Are attorneys expensive? Yes. But the cost of hiring a professional to defend you is usually a small fraction of the overall cost of a criminal conviction. If you absolutely cannot afford an attorney, the court can appoint one to represent you free of charge.
Do you have the constitutional right to defend yourself? Yes, but you shouldn’t try it, as the lawyers at Pacific Legal Group can attest. Prosecutors love putting chalk marks in the win column and they will run you over like a kitten in the street.