It’s often hard to know when you might need a lawyer. People use the terms “charges,” “lawsuits” “prosecutions” and “complaints” carelessly and, sometimes, interchangeably. Most typically students and their families don’t know if being called before a college hearing board a legal proceeding?
The best rule of thumb is to ask yourself is something I value in jeopardy?
If your liberty is at stake (you may be arrested or jailed), or your education, or your job, or your money is at stake then you need to consider hiring a lawyer. Let’s start with the easiest: your liberty.
Your liberty is typically jeopardized in criminal cases. That may include situations where you are under investigation or already being prosecuted. Investigations come before a formal charge is brought. You may be clued in that you are under investigation if the police come around to ask questions or your papers or even computer are taken or sought by a court subpoena order. Prosecutions are what happens after formal charges are brought. Investigation sometimes continues even after the formal charges are brought.
In a criminal case, you should have lawyer. No exceptions. Even if you think the charge is false, wrong, weak or not very important, you need a criminal defense lawyer to help make sure you understand the risks and potential long-term damage to your record and career. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because a criminal charge may only result in a fine or probation that it is unimportant on your record. Even minor criminal convictions can drastically affect your future employment and education in very negative ways.
Also, it is very difficult for a person to competently handle his or her own criminal case. If the charge involves another person, then you will usually be ordered to stay away from them which will make it very difficult to investigate the facts of the case. Similarly, witnesses may fear to talk to you if you are the person charged with a crime. They may feel much more comfortable speaking with your lawyer or an investigator working for your lawyer. While there are no firm statistics on how many people choose to represent themselves in criminal cases, estimates range below 1%.
This is because each criminal case is unique and only an experienced criminal defense lawyer can assess the particulars of a case. Make sure the lawyer you choose has experience with your kind of charge and criminal law generally. The family friend who does contract law or helps people draft their wills is not the right choice when you face a criminal charge.
A criminal investigation and prosecution involves many issues for which you need legal advice. Plea bargains, discovering what evidence is against you and whether to ask for a trial by jury or judge are but some of the questions you will need to consider. If you are convicted and face punishment, your criminal defense will be invaluable in arguing for the lightest sentence possible or some alternative to jail such as probation.
I’ll write next time about some of the differences between non-criminal cases such as lawsuits seeking money or university conduct hearings and university academic honor council proceedings.