Why Everyone Charged With a Crime Should Have a Lawyer

Sarissa Montague

Every time a person goes into court, there are significant consequences that result from the decisions they make. This applies even when that person leaves the court without making a decision because not making a decision is a decision in and of itself. 

This is true in every criminal case, whether the person is charged with a felony or a misdemeanor. In Michigan, all people charged with felony offenses are represented by lawyers unless the person purposely declines legal representation. That is not the same for people charged with misdemeanors – as a practical matter, if a person does not hire an attorney to represent them on a misdemeanor charge, then an attorney will only be appointed to represent them under specific circumstances. As a practical matter, many people charged with misdemeanors go into court unrepresented and have to manage the process on their own.

While this happens all of the time – it shouldn’t. I drive a car. I know how to drive a car. I know when there is something wrong with my car. But I am not a mechanic. So when something wrong with my car, I don’t know the best way to fix it. And, because I do not know much about how cars work, even when I am speaking with the mechanic about what needs to be done, I don’t know if his/her recommendations are really the best options available to solve my problem.

The same concept applies when going to court, even on a misdemeanor charge. When a person charged with a misdemeanor goes into court unrepresented, he or she is required to negotiate with a prosecutor to try to resolve their case. It is an uneven playing field – two people trying to negotiate an outcome when only one of the parties has the expertise of understanding the potential outcomes. While many prosecutors are ethical and adhere to their ethical obligations when carrying out their duties, the American Bar Association recently issued an opinion stating that “prosecutors must maintain ethical conduct during misdemeanor plea deals.”  If the American Bar Association took the time to issue such an opinion, it is likely because prosecutors, in at least some jurisdictions, are not adhering to ethical standards. This can have lifelong consequences for people in trouble, even if, at the time, they consider it to be minor trouble. 

Being charged with a crime is scary. When you practice criminal law on a daily basis you learn quickly there are infinite potential outcomes to a situation – but the only way you can ensure the best outcome for you is to come from an even position on the playing field.

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