So you messed up, you know you messed up, so why would you need a criminal defense attorney? You only hire a criminal defense attorney if you are trying to get the case dismissed, right? Wrong!
As a criminal defense attorney practicing in Boise, Idaho, I hear prospective clients ask me, “Well I know I am guilty, why do I need a criminal lawyer?” This is like asking your doctor, “Well I know I am sick, why do I need a doctor?” These same prospective clients seem to think that if they just plead straight up guilty without a lawyer that the judge will feel sorry for them, and go easier on them. While it is true that a judge may take into consideration the fact that you are taking responsibility and accountability for your actions, that doesn’t mean you have to immediately plead guilty to leave that impression. Judges understand that defendants have a right to an attorney, and also expect that attorney to review all available evidence and law before advising his client.
Pleading guilty without representation can be a mistake for two reasons. Surely more than two, but two that I will address now.
First, just because you are guilty of doing something wrong, does not necessarily mean you are guilty of the crime you are charged with. Criminal charges have elements, and the state’s attorney must prove those elements beyond a reasonable doubt.
Here is an example. Suppose you strike your friend in the face with your fist, while in your home, and it is clear you were not defending yourself. Consequently, the state charges you with the crime of domestic battery. Although the prosecutor may be able to prove the elements of a simple battery charge, the prosecutor will not be able to prove the elements of a domestic battery charge. The element of the victim being a domestic partner living in your home is missing. Therefore you are not guilty of domestic battery. If you came into the courtroom, unrepresented, and plead guilty, you would be making a big mistake by pleading to a charge you are not guilty of. Domestic battery carries serious consequences, including losing your right to keep and bear firearms.
The second reason pleading guilty without an attorney can be a mistake is because of sentencing. Once you plead guilty and you are convicted of a criminal charge, you must be sentenced on that charge. At sentencing the judge will consider both mitigating factors and aggravating factors, related to your particular case and your particular circumstances. The judge learns of these mitigating and aggravating factors from the state’s attorney, and from your attorney. If you do not have an attorney, the judge must get the sentencing argument from you. Attorneys are trained and educated in knowing what factors are relevant at sentencing, and what will help you in your particular circumstance. Sometimes what you think will help you, may hurt you, and vice versa.
For example, you may be reluctant to tell the judge about your addiction to alcohol or drugs, but that very factor may be a reason for the judge to choose to focus more on rehabilitation rather than on incarceration. Or on the flip side, you may be eager to tell the judge how the victim in the case told you they didn’t want to press charges, and inadvertently implicate yourself in a violation of a no contact order with that victim (which is a new crime). A criminal defense attorney knows how to avoid these pitfalls, you can benefit a great deal from his experience.
It is never a good idea to represent yourself, hence the old adage, “the lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.”