When to ask a judge
At an arraignment, defendants are advised of what they’re charged with, and a plea of not guilty is almost always entered. The court will schedule various dates along with a trial date. Most defendants who want to represent themselves ask a judge for permission to do so at the time of their arraignment. The judge will then set that issue for hearing.
The purpose of the hearing on representing oneself is to make a formal record of the request and obtain a waiver of his or her 6th Amendment right to an attorney. The judge will want the defendant to confirm on the record that he or she is freely, voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently waiving their right to an attorney with full knowledge of the possible consequences.
The defendant’s competency
For purposes of an opportunity for a fair trial, the law doesn’t allow a person to represent himself or herself if the presiding judge doesn’t feel that the defendant is competent to do so. Competency in this context isn’t about whether the defendant is mentally ill or not. It’s about the ability to understand and participate in all phases of the case against him or her.
Factors that a court considers
In deciding on the issue of a defendant’s competency, some of the factors that a court takes into consideration include the defendant’s age, educational level, his or her ability to speak and understand English and the seriousness of the crime that he or she is charged with. These factors make it clear that you need not have the skills of a attorney to be able to represent yourself. You’ll be held to the same ground rules that attorneys are held to in all phases of your case though.
Remember that in waiving your 6th Amendment right to an attorney, you’re also waiving any right that you might have to claim ineffective assistance of counsel. Knowledge and experience in criminal law and procedure can make the difference between being found guilty or not guilty. It’s highly likely that you’ll be far better off having an attorney represent you in any criminal case.
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