Should You Represent Yourself in a Criminal Case?

Choosing to represent yourself in a criminal case — rather than hiring a lawyer — is one of your fundamental rights in our criminal justice system. But why exactly is this a right, especially if you can have a state-appointed attorney? And are there any benefits to representing yourself?

Faretta vs. California

In 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in the case Faretta vs. California that Americans have the right to represent themselves in state criminal proceedings. This does not guarantee the right to self-representation in every single case, however; judges typically consider several factors when deciding if an individual is able to self-represent. These factors include:

  • The defendant’s age
  • If the defendant is of sound mind and is competent of self-representing
  • How well the defendant can speak and understand English
  • The seriousness of the crime that the defendant is facing

If the judge determines that an individual is not adequately capable of self-representing, for any of the reasons listed above, the judge may require that an attorney represent the defendant. Individuals do not have to possess the same amount of legal knowledge as a professional lawyer in order to self-represent. However, they must demonstrate that they have an adequate understanding of case proceedings, and that they have the right to be represented by a professional attorney.

Is it smart to represent yourself?

There are some situations where defendants may choose to represent themselves without seeing any major repercussions. For example, many people self-represent when they accrue a minor traffic violation. In these cases, it might end up costing the individual more time and money to hire a lawyer than it would cost to simply give a guilty plea and pay the fine.

However, individuals should carefully consider all factors that might influence their own situation. American citizens have the right to be represented in criminal cases no matter how small the charges may be. In more serious cases, such as with felony charges or in cases where the possible sentencing can vary greatly, it’s usually unwise for defendants to represent themselves. It’s common for an individual to self-represent at an arraignment, which is the first appearance before a judge where the defendant pleads guilty or not guilty, largely because this proceeding is fairly short and straightforward when the defendant pleads not guilty. It is during the arraignment that a judge will appoint a lawyer, like a criminal defense attorney Fairfax VA, if the defendant does not have a lawyer, does not intend to hire a private criminal defense attorney, and does not waive the right to be represented by an attorney.

In summation, it’s certainly possible to represent yourself in a criminal case but it’s rarely a good idea to do so. In fact, even lawyers who find themselves in legal troubles will often choose to hire a professional criminal defense attorney to represent them in court. A public defender might not be able to devote the same amount of time to a case as a private defense attorney, but all licensed attorneys must have a certain level of legal knowledge in order to practice in the state. Choosing to represent yourself for anything more serious than a traffic ticket is generally unwise.


Thanks to our friends and contributors from Virginia Crime & Traffic Law Firm for their insight into criminal defense cases.