Do I Need to Hire an Attorney in a Domestic Violence Case or Can I Get By Representing Myself?
If you’re arrested for domestic violence in South Florida, there is no law that requires you to hire a defense lawyer. We sometimes hear this question from those who aren’t entitled to a court-appointed defense lawyer or who don’t think they can swing a private lawyer. The short answer is: Yes, you are at perfect liberty to represent yourself in court. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
It’s sort of like venturing out to sea alone on a sailboat - in the middle of a summer storm… When you have no supplies, radio communication, or sailing experience. In that scenario, a criminal defense lawyer is like a well-seasoned captain - unable to control the wind and waves, but far more capable of steering you to safety.
Even in the odd circumstance in which the defendant themself is a licensed attorney, they will almost never represent themselves in court - the same way a dentist wouldn’t pull her own teeth.Why Does Having a Criminal Defense Lawyer Matter So Much?
Having a criminal defense lawyer certainly matters more in some types of cases than others. But the fact is that even the most seemingly simple legal matters often require dozens of steps and a fair amount of complex legal maneuvering to complete successfully.
In one analysis published by the Syracuse Law Review, researchers identified 200 non-obvious tasks self-represented litigants in civil cases must perform - from compiling evidence to interpreting the law to filing motions to negotiating settlements. Criminal cases aren’t any less complicated. One misstep, and your entire case - one that will play a pivotal role in your future - is in serious jeopardy.
For domestic violence criminal matters in particular, self representation is very risky. Just as an example, cross-examination of witnesses - both in depositions and at trial - can be extremely awkward and difficult. The witness may be providing false or misleading testimony, but a pro se defendant’s attempts to press them on these issues while using first-person language and not coming across as a bully or asking leading questions is a precarious tightrope.
So sure, you might “get by” with pro se (“on one’s own”) representation. It’s true that in recent years, courts have become increasingly mindful of the fact that there are a lot of “legal deserts” and many people who could really benefit from legal counsel simply can’t afford it. There has been a resulting movement among civil rights and equal justice advocates to even the playing field for pro se defendants. There is a larger library of self-help resources than ever before. The Florida Supreme Court has a Pro Se Handbook: A Guide for criminal defendants who want to appeal, as well as information on how courts operate, general filing information and fees, library research resources, and links to local law libraries. However, those things aren’t a substitute for legal advice from a qualified attorney. You should not expect to be shown a great deal of grace by the courts for things like missed deadlines, filing the wrong paperwork, or not fully understanding the precise meaning of certain legal terminology.
The stakes in Florida domestic violence cases are high. A first time conviction on a first-degree misdemeanor domestic violence charge carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail - with a minimum of five days for most offenses, 15-30 days minimum if it took place in front of a child under the age of 16. If it’s punished as a felony, you’re likely facing a maximum of five years (unless the incident involved sexual assault or serious injury, in which case, the penalties will be more severe). On top of all that, there’s a permanent record, a barrier to entry for certain jobs, leases, and other opportunities, limits on firearm-owning freedoms, and potential immigration consequences. It’s not the type of case one should leave to chance.What About Being Appointed a Lawyer if I Can’t Afford One?
If you’ve watched any crime and courts television show over the last few decades, you’re likely familiar with the Miranda Warning, cited aloud to criminal suspects upon arrest reminding them of their right to an attorney, and indicating the court will appoint a public defender if they can’t afford one.
However, not every defendant in every type of criminal case is entitled to a court-appointed lawyer if they are indigent/can’t afford one. The 1963 precedential U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Gideon v. Wainright ended with the proclamation that anyone too poor to hire a lawyer must be provided one free in any criminal case that involved a felony charge. That precedent was later expanded to include misdemeanor cases wherein the defendant is facing jail time (which in Florida does include most domestic violence cases), as well as in a first appeal from a criminal conviction
While that is a standard typically met in federal courts, state courts - which are responsible for handling 95 percent of criminal cases in the U.S. - struggle with the funding needed to hire competent criminal defense lawyers for all the defendants who need one - which is about 80 percent.
American Bar Association guidelines indicate public defender caseloads should be no more than 150 felonies. In Miami and in other heavily populated areas of South Florida, some public defenders are juggling caseloads of 500+. In nearly two dozen counties in Florida, an average of 70 percent of misdemeanor defendants pleaded guilty or no contest in arraignments that were less than 5 minutes long.
Even if your public defender is skilled, they aren’t likely to be able to devote the amount of time and resources your case deserves. If you have the means to hire a private defense attorney to help with your Broward domestic violence case, it’s your best shot at more favorable case outcomes.
If you are arrested for domestic violence in South Florida, contact The Ansara Law Firm today for your free initial consultation at (954) 761-4011.