People often question why they should have to retain an attorney to represent them when they didn’t do anything wrong. Sometimes, they believe the attorney isn’t going to be able to do anything to help them and they would just be wasting their money. This happens with people who are both guilty and not guilty of the crime they are accused of having committed. People don’t normally get arrested unless the police officer intends to follow through on the prosecution in court. Most defendants are not lawyers and don’t know their rights, court procedure, or the law of evidence, but they somehow convince themselves they shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer and of course the judge will listen to everything the accused wants to say even if it’s not presented properly by the accused in court. After all, everyone is innocent until proven guilty, right? Well, not exactly.
I prefer to think of innocent until proven guilty as a legal fiction. When was the last time you saw the news talking about the innocence of someone who got arrested that day? They routinely present the accused as if he’s already a convicted felon ready to head off to prison. It’s easy for me to tell you lawyers do help innocent and guilty people every day, but I recognize it can sound like little more than a sales pitch to the skeptical defendant.
One of my past clients whom we will call Paul made the mistake of representing himself in the juvenile and domestic relations court, naively believing he could take of himself and didn’t need any help. Normally, I would not share the details of Paul’s story like what follows, but Paul learned the hard way why it is so important to have a lawyer when you go to court. He wants to help others avoid making the same mistake and perhaps finding themselves unable to undo it. Paul has authorized me to disclose what happened to him with the hope that no one else will ever have to go through what he went through.
Before I share his story, I need to make an important disclaimer: Paul’s story is just an example of what can happen and is not necessarily what would happen to someone else who chooses to represent himself in court. Although I am sharing the outcome of his case with you, it is does not mean that every case ends the same way. In fact, CASE RESULTS DEPEND UPON A VARIETY OF FACTORS UNIQUE TO EACH CASE. CASE RESULTS DO NOT GUARANTEE OR PREDICT A SIMILAR RESULT IN ANY FUTURE CASE I MAY HANDLE. As much as I would like judges to agree with my clients every time, they do make their own decisions as they apply the circumstances of each case to the law. I cannot guarantee the results of any case no matter how strong or weak the case is and your particular case may end differently than Paul’s did. If you are facing any criminal charges, you should consult with an attorney to learn more about what to realistically expect in your case.
One day, I met a woman named Rebecca in a local courthouse hallway who was searching for a lawyer who could help her friend Paul. Paul’s soon to be ex-wife Sarah and adult step-daughter Mimi had falsely accused him of abusing them on multiple occasions. The most recent accusation led to Paul’s arrest for domestic assault (first offense) and a petition for a protective order.
Before it happened, Paul had moved out of the apartment where he’d lived with Mimi, Sarah, and their 3 young children (Tom, Tina, and George).
On the day of the arrest, Paul had stopped by the home to visit his children. During the visit, Paul briefly stepped into the restroom. While Paul was in the restroom, Tom insulted Mimi and Mimi tried to beat him with a belt as a punishment. As Paul stepped out of the bathroom, Tom ran past him screaming for help and locked himself in the bathroom to escape Mimi’s wrath.
Paul stood between Mimi and the bathroom door and prevented Mimi from getting access to Tom. Paul did not touch Mimi other than to prevent her from forcing her way into the bathroom. During the struggle, Mimi wildly swung a belt, hitting both Paul and herself and leaving marks on their bodies. Tom did not see the full struggle because he kept shutting the bathroom door for safety, but he did see some of it and hear everything that was said. The other two children had followed Tom and Mimi to the bathroom and watched the whole fight.
Paul tried to call his estranged wife Sarah to ask her to come home and get Mimi under control so Tom could safely come out of the bathroom. He called Sarah and not 911 because he felt this was a family problem and not something he wanted to involve the police with. Paul met Sarah outside the home and updated her on the status of Mimi and Tom. Then Paul left, believing the situation had been resolved and having no idea of what Sarah and Mimi were about to do.
Sarah discussed what happened with Mimi. They decided to call the police and say Paul had hit Mimi. Soon after the incident, Paul was arrested for domestic assault (first offense) and served with legal papers telling him Mimi and Sarah were asking for a civil protective order (commonly called a restraining order).
Shortly after Paul’s arrest, he became so sick from the stress of his legal problems that he missed his first hearing in juvenile and domestic relations court where he was supposed to fight about the protective order. As a result, Sarah and Mimi were granted a protective order which not only forbade Paul from having any contact with them, but also ordered him to have no contact or visitation with the children he’d fathered with Sarah at all for the next two years. If he contacted any of them, he would be arrested and sent to jail for violating the protective order. Fortunately, Paul discovered what happened very quickly after the hearing and was able to appeal the decision to circuit court.
Paul’s second hearing in juvenile and domestic relations court was the criminal trial for domestic assault. Paul believed he should not have to hire a lawyer because he was innocent of any wrongdoing. Besides, he was an intelligent man with a basic understanding of what court is and what his rights are. A lawyer’s not going to do anything he can’t do himself, right? Wrong.
Paul’s trial did not go well. Paul did his best to present his case, but he did not know the rules of evidence and could not distinguish the difference between information that would be considered relevant to the criminal matter and what would be considered relevant only for the divorce case. At the end of the criminal trial, Paul was found guilty and sentenced to serve ninety (90) days in jail.
Paul tried to file an appeal from inside the jail, but was not getting any help from the court clerks. So, he asked Rebecca to go to the courthouse to file the appeal for him. The clerk would not let Rebecca appeal Paul’s case because only the defendant (Paul) or his attorney (at that point, no one) is allowed to file an appeal.
Rebecca was sure Paul wasn’t going to be allowed to exercise his right to appeal even though he’d already told the clerks and jail administration several times he wanted to appeal. She didn’t know what to do and began to wander around the courthouse hallways looking for anyone who could help her. She saw me walking out of a courtroom and guessed I was a lawyer.
I listened to Rebecca’s story of what had happened and knew Paul needed my help. I explained to Rebecca what I could do to get Paul out of jail and back into court to fight the case properly. Rebecca decided to hire me right there in the courthouse hallway. We then went back to the clerk’s office where I entered my appearance for the purpose of appealing the criminal case to circuit court and noted an appeal on Paul’s behalf.
While the clerk was preparing the paperwork to tell the jail to release Paul, I walked straight over to the jail to meet Paul for the first time. Paul was very brave, trying to make the best of a bad situation, and even joked about the stylish clothing he was wearing. It seemed everyone around there was always wearing the exact same thing! Nevertheless, I could tell he was upset about Sarah and Mimi’s lies and felt very strongly the judge had been unfair and not even given him a chance to present his defense. I promised Paul I would do my best at trial and informed him I’d already taken care of the problems he’d been having noting his appeal. I told Paul he would be getting released from the jail soon, advised him to get a lawyer for the civil protective order and the divorce that was obviously getting underway, and left.
Paul had learned his lesson. By now, he’d come to realize he could not defend himself in court well. To make matters worse, Sarah and Mimi had people helping them which gave them an unfair advantage. As soon as Paul was discharged from the jail, he came to my office and hired me to handle the civil protective order appeal in addition to the criminal domestic assault appeal.
My first round in the fight on Paul’s behalf was a scheduling hearing for the protective order case. Neither Mimi nor Sarah came to court for that hearing even though Mimi had been ordered to appear. Paul and I had to appear twice before the judge agreed to dismiss the case thereby dissolving the protective order and making it legal for Paul to visit his children. Naturally, Paul was delighted.
The criminal domestic assault charge was more of a fight. Because the children had watched the fight between Paul, Mimi, and Tom and because Paul was positive they would tell the truth about what happened, I arranged for the clerk to issue witness subpoenas for Tom and his younger sister. Mimi and Sarah knew they were lying about what had happened and knew that Tom would never agree to help Mimi, so they ignored the witness subpoenas and came to court for trial without the children not just once, but twice.
The second time Mimi and Sarah disregarded the subpoenas that ordered Sarah to bring the children to court, the prosecutor tried to put an end to this standoff and offered to let Paul do a first offender diversion program. He would be required to plead guilty, pay court costs, go to anger management classes, and have no contact with Mimi, Sarah, or any of the children for two years. If he did all that and had no new charges in the next two years, the case would be dismissed and Paul would not be convicted of anything. It was certainly a much better deal than what he’d gotten in the first court. But, Paul knew he was innocent and loved his kids so much he could not allow Mimi and Sarah to force him to emotionally abandon them.
When we finally had the criminal trial, the judge said he could not find Paul guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Paul’s case was dismissed and he was a free man who learned all too well why it is important to bring an attorney to court with you. Thanks to my assistance in court, Paul was now ready to fight the divorce and custody/support issues on a level battlefield, this time with a qualified attorney on his side.
To borrow the words of a popular television commercial, don’t be like Paul. Bring a lawyer to court with you every time you have to fight about something. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll win, but it does help make sure you will get a fair chance.