When someone is faced with criminal charges that involve appearing in court, they have to make an important decision: should they invest the money necessary to hire a private attorney, or should they take their chances and appear on their own? It’s a fair question, especially for people who have never had to appear in a courtroom before. The fact is that people are faced with this type of question all the time: is it worth the money to hire a trained mechanic to fix a car? Is it worth the money to have a professional drycleaner clean laundry? Is it worth the money to visit with a certified doctor for treatment? It’s pretty obvious that it’s almost always ideal to have the help of an experienced professional in any situation, and an attorney no exception, but why?
1. Experience vs. Inexperience
Probably the most important thing that a defense attorney brings to the courtroom is their experience. Just as you would expect better results from a doctor who has diagnosed and treated your illness before, you should also expect a better outcome with the help of an attorney who has defended cases like yours before. An experienced defense attorney will know if you are getting a fair offer from a prosecutor, or whether the judge is giving you a fair sentence. The attorney will know when to fight, when to compromise, and when to appeal. They will have a reputation with the bailiffs, the court clerks, the prosecutors and the judges that can only come from working with the courts on a regular basis. All of this can have a very significant influence on how you are sentenced, and it’s all something that you can only get with an attorney at your side.
2. Potential Consequences
One thing overlooked by most people who go into a courtroom is just how harshly they could be sentenced. In Utah, judges are given incredible flexibility when sentencing, and penalties for any given charge can range from a slap-on-the-wrist fine to significant jail time. Most people don’t know, for instance, that for speeding 5 miles over the limit (an Infraction – the lowest class of criminal charge), they could be given a fine as high as $1,425.00. For a Class B Misdemeanor, such as being charged with criminal trespass for riding TRAX without a ticket, they could be sentenced to as much as $1,900.00 in fines, along with six months in jail. When facing penalties that severe, it is always smart to have a professional attorney with you.
3. Collateral Damage
Aside from the direct consequences from being sentenced, there are a lot of unexpected problems that can come from accepting the wrong plea deal. You might consider yourself lucky to be given a fine for a possession charge, for instance, only to find a letter in your mailbox the next day letting you know that your license has been suspended for six months. You might be relieved that your misdemeanor assault case was resolved with just a few counseling classes, only to find the cost of the classes skyrocketing into the thousands of dollars. A light fine and some classes might look like a good deal to you for a DUI charge; even when you lose your license for a few months, you still feel like you can live with it. Then you get the letter from your insurance company terminating your policy because there’s a DUI on your record, and two weeks later you’re having a sit down with your boss about the company’s zero-tolerance policy for employees with a DUI. The possibilities are truly endless when it comes to collateral damage, but it’s a good bet that an experienced defense attorney has seen a case like yours before, and can help you avoid the worst of them.
4. A Criminal Record
Right along with the collateral damage that comes from accepting the wrong plea deal is the creation of a criminal record. From the moment you are charged with a crime, it becomes part of your record. Even if your case is ultimately dismissed, it will still show up on your record as having been charged. Of course, just being charged might not cause problems when it comes to background checks, but a guilty verdict will start to close doors for the rest of your life, even for minor offenses. An attorney can help protect your record in any number of ways, from having the case verdict amended to dismissed, to having charges reduced to a lesser degree as part of the deal, making them eligible for expungement. Prosecutors aren’t always willing to negotiate with your criminal record in mind, but having an attorney call attention to it can make all the difference.
5. Unfair Treatment
The most obvious benefit from having an attorney represent you in the courtroom is to make sure that, no matter how you’ve been charged, you get treated fairly. You may think you know all of your rights by heart, but the legal system built around those rights is very, very complex. It’s just as likely that you’ll overlook one of your rights in the courtroom as you might misunderstand how the law has interpreted one of your rights. Criminal defense attorneys spend years in school studying those very issues: learning when your rights are applicable, when they are not, and when they are being violated. All of this can have a huge impact on how you are treated in the courtroom and how your case gets resolved.
No matter how many times someone has been in the courtroom before, facing a judge for criminal charges can be intimidating, embarrassing and very discouraging. This mindset can make you vulnerable to rushed deals and unfair rulings, and can impact your own judgment severely. A private attorney can act as a buffer between yourself and the courtroom, giving you all the advantages that come from a clear mind and an approachable attitude. Needless to say, this can have a big impact on how your case is regarded by the court, and on what kind of deals you are offered by the prosecutor. More importantly, having an attorney gives you a source of answers for your questions, and can give you the peace of mind that comes from knowing what to expect and when you can expect it.
When first charged with a crime, most people are immediately given a date and time to appear in court. There is no negotiation, no accommodation for schedules, and no regard for personal needs. Moreover, anyone charged with a crime who tries to represent themselves should plan on spending their entire day in court – cases represented by an attorney are, as a rule, called before all other cases. This means that, without an attorney, you will be required to show up when the court demands, wait for what may end up being several hours before your case is called and, depending on whether it is your first hearing or not, wait several more hours or even days before getting your case resolved. On the other hand, a private attorney can waive unnecessary hearings, reschedule cases until a more convenient time, and in some circumstances resolve the case without ever requiring you to appear.
People sometimes wince when they hear how much it is going to cost them to hire a private attorney, but they don’t always realize just how much more money it might cost them if they go without. With all the leeway judges have in sentencing, fines for any given case can easily get up to the tens of thousands of dollars (click here for a charge guide). Then there can be classes, tests, restitution and court costs to pay for, all of which are decided by the judge. Do the research into how much money it will cost you if your case goes south – paying an attorney just might be one of the smartest investments you’ll ever make.
9. Private Attorney vs. Public Defender
Most people recognize that they are better off in the courtroom with an attorney, but instead of hiring a private attorney, they just let the court appoint them one. An attorney is an attorney, right? Why pay for something you can get for free?
The bottom line is that you get what you pay for. A private attorney relies on their reputation to get new clients and make a living – this means their first priority is to make you happy with their work. On the other hand, a public defender doesn’t have to worry about their reputation – they get their checks from the government whether or not you are happy with their work. On top of that, public defenders are often swamped with cases for the very reason that people can get them for free. This puts a lot of pressure on them to close cases as quickly as possible, which means your case probably won’t get the attention it needs. A private attorney, on the other hand, will have far fewer cases to handle, and rather than being pressured to close them as quickly as possible, the private attorney is interested in closing them with the best possible deal. They live by their reputations, remember?
So is a public defender better than no attorney at all? Sure, but don’t expect the same results as you’d get from a private attorney. It’s the difference between having a government employee working with you, and having your own employee working for you.
It’s hard to imagine a worse time to wonder about getting professional help than when you’re faced with criminal charges. The atmosphere is intimidating, the people are unfamiliar, the process is unsympathetic and the consequences are enormous. Don’t take a risk that you might regret for the rest of your life – decide to hire an attorney now. Your time will be much better spent by researching firms, taking them up on consultations, and finding the right attorney for you.
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