Defendants are entitled to represent themselves, if they wish, in criminal proceedings. However, lawyers have long said that anyone who chooses to defend their own case "has a fool for a client," and even if that seems self-serving coming from lawyers, there is some truth to the idea. The legal system is complicated, and when your liberty is at risk (i.e. prison), the assistance of an attorney is invaluable.
When you need legal help with a criminal charge, there are a number of options. We explore these options below, including what to do when you can't afford a lawyer.
Finding a Criminal Law Attorney
If you or a loved one have been arrested or made the subject of a criminal investigation, you may need the immediate assistance of an experienced criminal defense lawyer. Unlike civil court cases, where money or property may be at stake, people suspected of committing a crime will see their fundamental freedoms put in jeopardy, and should act quickly to make sure that their rights are protected by an experienced criminal defense attorney.
A privately retained attorney will be willing to spend time explaining your situation, discussing defense options, and working out how your case may impact your life outside the courtroom.
If You Can't Afford a Lawyer
At most steps in the criminal justice process, the U.S. Constitution guarantees the assistance of an attorney to almost all people who have been charged with a crime. This means that, even if you can't afford to hire a criminal defense lawyer for yourself or a loved one, the government will provide you with a lawyer free of charge. Usually employed by the government as "public defenders," these attorneys are responsible for zealously protecting a criminal defendant's rights at all stages of the criminal process -- from arrest to appeal.
Most courts either have permanent staff or have a system to appoint private attorneys to defend indigent defendants. In either case, these attorneys typically deal with a large caseload and receive little compensation. This means that an appointed attorney may not have much time outside of the courtroom to confer with the defendant. These attorneys are typically well-experienced and competent, but have less time or patience for discussion of the case.
Some courts will investigate a defendant's employment and property ownership and can refuse access to a free attorney if they feel that the individual can afford to hire a private lawyer. A public defender won't participate in any related civil proceedings, such as a personal injury lawsuit filed alongside criminal charges for assault. A private attorney is not limited in this manner and may be willing to represent you in both actions.
Take the Next Step: Contact a Local Defense Attorney
Getting legal help with a criminal matter early in the process could make the difference in your case. After all, an attorney can help to shape the evidence in the record and can also negotiate for reduced or alternative charges. Remember, not having a defense attorney to help defend against your criminal charges often ends up being more costly than lawyering up.