Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Pro Se - Representing Yourself In A Criminal Trial

I have been charged with a felony crime and I want to represent myself in court. Any suggestions or guidance that you could provide me would be appreciated. Thank you.


If you are charged with a felony, my only suggestion to you would be to hire a criminal defense attorney and to seek guidance from that attorney. Self representation is at the cornerstone of our legal system, with your right to represent yourself in any criminal proceeding protected by the United States Constitution. And yet, the Constitution also affords you an absolute right to representation by an attorney at law even if you cannot afford one.

US Federal Courts and Wisconsin State Circuit Courts operate by different courtroom rules and procedures. You will be expected to know those rules and procedures. In addition to knowing how and when to proceed, you will also be treated as though you are an experienced attorney with knowledge of criminal law, criminal procedure, constitutional law, evidential law and rules, and case law (previously decided cases). The court and the prosecutor are on the same payroll, and neither of them are required to teach you the law or courtroom procedure. The outcome can have a very negative effect on your finances or freedom. (See Pro Se Defendant Loses - Gets Convicted of 3rd Offense OWI; Wood Wins on Appeal)

If you are considered "indigent" under state guidelines, you can have an attorney appointed to you at no cost. Those attorneys are called public defenders. (Refer to Wisconsin State Public Defenders).

In some counties, if your income exceeds the guidelines for indigent status, and the county has funds or a program by which to fund court-appointed counsel, you can have an attorney appointed to you at no costs or at very reduced rates.

In all situations, regardless of whether you qualify for a court-appointed attorney, you should consider the facts that 1) the state is your opponent, 2) their attorneys are very experienced in prosecuting felony cases, 3) and they have access to state labs and other resources to support their case against you. As well, district attorneys may not be so readily agreeable to negotiating a plea settlement (often called plea bargaining) with a person who is not represented by an expert legal advisor, or you may be the subject of a less than honorable agreement (See District Attorney violates Supreme Court rules).

Most criminal defense attorneys provide free initial consultations to help you understand the basic requirements of proof involved in a case such as yours, the penalties available to the court if you are convicted, and their initial fees - a retainer - required to hire them to represent you. At Van Wagner & Wood, we provide a free first-impression analysis via phone, e-mail or a meeting. Unless the attorney knows you, your history and ALL of the facts of your case, a first initial consultation will be a first-impression of the merits of the state's case against you and your defense. Consequently, you may be required to pay additional fees beyond the initial retainer.

If a criminal defense attorney offers a free initial conversation, it would be well worth your time and effort to take advantage of that offer before you make a decision to represent yourself.

It may also be of some merit in your decision process to know that criminal defense attorneys do not "go pro se" if they are charged with a crime, even though they know criminal law and how to defend a case in a criminal trial. (See Attorney Staton Found Not Guilty).

If after all these considerations, you are still determined to go it alone, then you will want to have these sites bookmarked in your favorites. These suggestions represent only a few of the resources you will need, but they will get you started.
Wisconsin Criminal Code, Statutes
Wisconsin Circuit Courts, locations
Legal Handbook, Wisconsin Courts

Circuit Court Open Records, Online Access
Wisconsin State Court of Appeals, Opinions
Wisconsin Supreme Court Opinions
A legal dictionary - there are several, this is one
Jury Instructions

Helpful information:
Criminal Defense Overview
Free Initial First-Impression Analysis
Plea Agreements - Plea Bargaining

US Courts - Defense against federal charges
Wisconsin Courts