Under the Constitution of the United States, you are entitled to representation by a lawyer if you are facing a potential jail sentence upon conviction. Even if you are convicted and do not receive an active jail sentence, you are entitled to a lawyer if jail is even a possibility. If you cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint one for you. This lawyer is absolutely free if you are acquitted; unfortunately, if you are convicted you will have to pay a court appointed attorney "fee." Even if you are not facing a potential jail sentence upon conviction, you have the right to hire your own attorney for any matter.
The Sixth Amendment to the United Constitution not only guarantees you the right to a court appointed lawyer if you face a jail or prison sentence, but also guarantees you the right to proceed pro se - that is to say, the right to represent yourself without a lawyer.
Should you proceed without a lawyer and represent yourself? The answer to that question is up to you, but here are some things you should know. A judge has a duty to be fair, impartial and neutral. He must treat the parties equally and not show favor or dislike for either side. In a typical traffic case, if you decide to represent yourself the following will likely be how the proceedings unfold: the judge may say something like, "Officer, tell me why you stopped Mr. Jones on February 25?" At that point the officer will give his testimony and may introduce other evidence, like photos or calibration certificates if speed is at issue. After, the judge will likely ask you, "Sir, is there anything you would like to say?" At that point you would be permitted to testify, if you chose and could also offer evidence in your favor. The judge would also give you an opportunity to ask the officer questions, called cross-examination. After that, the judge would decide if you were guilty or not guilty.
A judge cannot try your case for you, or help you in making objections, legal arguments, or other legal strategies. Here is a list of common trial decisions, or choices you may need to be able to make on your own if you do not have a lawyer:
- Objecting to Hearsay - some hearsay is not admissible, and if an officer testifies as to what another person told him you would have to object, otherwise that testimony would be admitted.
- Suppressing Evidence - if an officer conducted an illegal search, or obtained statements for you in violation of the law, you would have to move to suppress, otherwise the evidence would be admitted.
- Objecting to Foundation - before certain testimony or evidence may be offered, a necessary foundation must be laid.
- Moving to Dismiss - there are technical defenses to how a charging document is issued and brought before the court and you must make those objections prior to trial.
- Moving to Strike - after the officer testifies, and before you present evidence, you can move to strike the evidence if it is insufficient as a matter of law, otherwise the case may go forward.
- Whether to Testify or Not - you do not have to testify, and sometimes a person is convicted not because of the officer's testimony, but because of their own. Once you testify, you may be asked questions about anything related to the case.
Many people represent themselves everyday on minor traffic matters and there is nothing wrong with that - sometimes a person proceeding pro se wins their case. But consulting with a lawyer, at the very least, before choosing to do so may be the wisest course of action. A judge will hold a pro se defendant to the same standard as if he were a lawyer. For more serious offenses, I would strongly recommend seeking counsel to represent you - the consequences are too important to you and your future.