Can Florida Defendants Represent Themselves In Criminal Court?
Even if you do not go to jail, the costs of being a defendant in a criminal case add up. If you serve a probation sentence, you must pay all the costs associated with your probation, including drug testing and, if applicable, a GPS ankle monitor. The court can suspend your driver’s license, sometimes even for offenses that do not involve driving. If that happens, you will have to pay a lot of money to get your driver’s license reinstated, to say nothing of how much you will have to spend on rideshare rides while your license is under suspension. The worst consequence, however, is having a criminal conviction on your record, which can limit your prospects for employment for the rest of your life. Therefore, you might balk at the idea of paying a criminal defense lawyer, especially given the fact that the chances of pleading guilty are far greater than the chances of being acquitted at trial. Here, our Miami criminal defense lawyer explains the options available to defendants regarding representation in criminal court.
The Right to Representation by an Attorney
On the one hand, the courts are designed to be accessible to everyone, not only people who can afford to hire professional lawyers. In civil cases, meaning everything except criminal cases, it is entirely your choice whether you hire a lawyer or represent yourself. Representing yourself in a legal case is called being a pro se litigant. The Latin phrase pro se means “on behalf of himself,” because the defendant (or plaintiff, in some civil cases) is representing himself or herself. Pro se litigants have a much lower chance of winning their cases, because they do not understand the relevant laws and their implications as well as lawyers who have graduated from law school and represented multiple clients in similar cases, but you have the right to assume that risk. In civil cases, the worst thing that can happen is that you lose money because the court orders you to pay damages or does not award you the damages that you are seeking. In family law cases related to child custody, the worst thing that can happen is that the court awards you less parenting time than you would have gotten if a lawyer had been representing you.
In a criminal case, defendants risk losing a lot more than just money. You can go to prison if the jury returns a guilty verdict. Even if you don’t get a prison sentence, a guilty verdict means a permanent conviction on your record. Therefore, representation by an attorney is one of the rights of defendants in criminal cases. In the Gideon v. Wainwright decision of 1963, the Supreme Court ruled that the state must provide representation by a public defender for defendants who cannot afford to hire their own legal counsel. Despite this, you have the right to request permission from the court to represent yourself in a criminal case.
When Does It Make Sense to Represent Yourself in Criminal Court?
In certain legal matters, people frequently represent themselves. This most commonly happens in probate court and in divorce and related family court matters. Notably, these are legal actions where no one wins or loses; the goal is to dissolve a marriage, draft or modify a parenting plan, or settle an estate. People also sometimes represent themselves when challenging traffic tickets, but it is best to do this when it is a relatively minor traffic infraction, where you only risk paying a fine and getting points on your license. You also have the right to hire a lawyer for traffic court, and you should if driver’s license suspension is at stake, but the court does not assign a public defender to your case if money is the only thing stopping you from hiring a lawyer.
What Can Go Wrong If You Represent Yourself?
If the court determines that you are competent to stand trial, you have the right to represent yourself in criminal court. If you do, you are going up against prosecutors who have law degrees and professional experience. Mistakes you make could delay your case. You are also entirely on your own when it comes to gathering evidence and summoning witnesses to establish reasonable doubt about your guilt. Likewise, your chances of getting a plea deal that reduces your sentence are much lower if you represent yourself.
Contact Our Criminal Defense Attorneys
A South Florida criminal defense lawyer can provide much better representation for you in criminal court than you can provide for yourself. Contact Ratzan & Faccidomo in Miami, Florida for a free, confidential consultation about your case.