You are driving, exhausted after a long day at work going home to your waiting family. You had a couple of beers after work with your coworkers to take the edge off and felt the effects of the alcohol but not to the point you thought you shouldn’t drive.
As you are driving home, you hear a siren behind you, and you begin to get nervous. You were positive you abided by every traffic light, had a legal and safe speed and did not swerve. The officer comes to your window, and asks you to step outside of your vehicle. He smells alcohol on your person and the driving while under the influence of alcohol investigation begins.
You do the field sobriety tests and thought you did well, but the handcuffs are placed on your wrists a little too tight for comfort and you are taken to the station.
The first question after you are released from the holding cell may not be do you need a lawyer—but it should be. The truth is not every legal issue needs a lawyer—for example a small claims issue when the amount being argued about is so minimal—a person would be amiss spending so much money on a lawyer for such a small hearing like that. A speeding ticket where you know you sped and you just want to pay the ticket and go to traffic school, no need for a lawyer there. But in a case like the hypothetical above, where there are so many potential legal issues involved, it would be in a person’s best interest to at the very least seek the advice of an attorney. Usually, initial consultations are free and so it allows an individual to talk to numerous attorneys and see who they trust.
In looking for the right fit, look for an attorney who is patient and listens to you and your needs. Lawyers know the law—and the law is complicated—(thus why the California bar exam has one of the lowest pass rates in the nation). Someone who is detached from your case, someone who can look at your case and analyze it without an emotional stake in the case will benefit you by pointing out aspects of a defense you may have never considered. For instance, in the hypothetical used above, a lawyer would investigate the reasons the person was pulled over in the first case? Was it a legal stop? Did the person being pulled over have a medical condition which made the alcohol level register higher? Did the officer conduct a proper investigation? All these questions should be answered by an attorney and their staff of investigators and paralegals who are trained to seek out this information. I will never forget seeing a prestigious attorney who had been arrested for a DUI being represented by another attorney in his DUI case. This attorney had tried hundreds of DUIs and yet still recognized the need to have another trained and emotionally detached attorney represent him. Representing oneself is never a good idea when faced with a skilled prosecutor who is trained and doesn’t have your best interests at heart.
It is ironic, as a public defender for many years, I saw the benefits first hand of having skilled representation. Prosecutors respected defense attorneys who knew the law and their cases. Thus good attorneys can minimize penalties one may face if convicted of the crime. Avoiding jail time altogether, and even mitigating costs to an individual are just a few benefits of hiring the right person who cares about you and your criminal record.
Good lawyers know how to challenge cases and in some cases even keep evidence out of trial. A person may not understand that certain evidence was not properly obtained. In the hypothetical above, what if the officer did not properly obtain the breath specimen? What if he did not realize the breath machine was not properly calibrated? Skilled attorneys know how to challenge these issues and can in some cases get this evidence excluded from trial.
Attorneys have at their disposal a staff of experts. From investigators to paralegals who know how to meet motion deadlines, to experts in the field—attorneys seldom work alone, and can easily assist a client in understanding how strong their case is.
So, you think you did the crime, and just want to plead—so you decide not to hire an attorney. This is a mistake. There is just not one way to plead—you can plead no contest or guilty in a criminal action—and both take a process of knowing your rights. Why are these rights important? Because you could be pleading to multiple charges that could have some serious consequences in the future that you could not have fathomed. I had a case where a young woman represented herself and didn’t realize at the time that what she plead to had serious immigration consequences. Unfortunately, she had no training to see at the time that pleading to that charge had consequences that affected her citizenship.
You only have one chance to protect your criminal record, and making mistakes could be costly. Good attorneys understand the consequences of how signing on the dotted line with fine print could affect clients in the future. And when someone represents themselves wrongly, trying to correct mistakes of the past are more expensive and time consuming then hiring an attorney in the first place.
You are not sure to go with the public defender. A public defender is a trained attorney and just like every occupation there are good public defenders and some that are not so good. Public Defenders represent those who cannot afford representation. They usually have much higher case-loads then privately retained attorneys and thus may not have the time to carefully analyze each and every case they are assigned to. That is why it is important to know your options and make the right choice for what your and your family needs are.
So take advantage of free consultations and listen to your gut. Make sure you hire a lawyer who is patient and understands your needs. A lawyer who will fight for you and will take the time to explain your case. And remember, you are not a bad person, everyone makes mistakes but that doesn’t mean you should not get a lawyer to protect you and your rights.