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Self-Representation: The Perils and Possibilities

In Galveston County, a person charged with a Class A or B Misdemeanor has a lot of options when it comes to legal representation. For those that show up at their first court appearance without an attorney, the judge of the county court will advise you that you have three options. First, you can waive your right to an attorney and speak to the prosecutor directly in an effort to resolve your case. Second, you can ask the court to reset your case to give you time to hire an attorney. Finally, you have the option of filling out an application for a court-appointed attorney, called a “Pauper’s Oath”. If you meet the financial requirements, you will be appointed an attorney to represent you.

One thing most people don’t know is that a court-appointed lawyer does NOT mean a free lawyer. Depending on the nature of the resolution of your case, Texas law allows the courts to require you to pay the county back in some situations. This may result in additional costs above and beyond any fines, fees, or probation costs you would otherwise receive. In addition, Galveston County’s Indigent Defense Plan is basically a pot-luck system. This means that you have no control over what attorney is assigned to your case. You can get the very best, or the very worst, and once the attorney is assigned, you’re usually going to be stuck with them. And many attorneys, despite fervent protests to the contrary, do not pay as much attention or put as much effort into their appointed cases. This is usually because at the rate the county pays them, they simply can’t afford to.

Representing yourself is not, by itself, a permanent decision. The judge and the prosecutor will (or should) tell you that you have the right to terminate the conversation at any time and revoke your waiver of your right to counsel. The real danger here is that while you speak to the prosecutor, you may inadvertently say something incriminating or helpful to the prosecutor’s attempt to punish you, something that can and will be used against you. But for most people, the real problem with defending yourself is simply a lack of knowledge. Most non-lawyers do not understand, simply from reading a police report, what evidence may or may not be used against them. During any contact with the police, there are any number of opportunities for police officers to make mistakes, mistakes that may require the dismissal or reduction of the charges against you. But most laymen do not have the knowledge to recognize those mistakes when they happen, or how the rights they do have should be applied.

Legal defense is like any other commodity. You get what you pay for. By shopping around for attorneys, you can generally gauge their skill and reputation by the fees they charge. This doesn’t mean you have to hire the most expensive attorney. But there is a real danger in hiring the ones that charge the least. Even those with limited financial means will usually be able to find an attorney who will work with them to make the representation affordable, whether through payment or installment plans, or other measures. So take the time to do your own research, and don’t be afraid to ask about attorneys’ reputations. In smaller legal communities like Galveston County, this can tell you a lot, and may save you from hiring the wrong attorney… especially if that attorney is yourself.

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