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A Defendant’s Right To Represent Themselves In A Criminal Trial


The Sixth Amendment grants criminal defendants the right to be represented by an attorney. In addition to that, the court has held that the Sixth Amendment also gives criminal defendants the right to represent themselves. However, a defendant can only represent themselves in a criminal trial if a judge allows them to do so. Generally, as a criminal defendant, you can only be permitted to represent yourself if a judge determines that you are competent to handle your case without an attorney. A criminal trial in which an incompetent defendant self-represents is an unfair one.

If you’re facing criminal charges and are thinking about handling your case without an attorney, read on for some crucial information.

Should You Represent Yourself?

The fact that you have the right to represent yourself in a criminal trial doesn’t mean that you should. Indeed, this might seem biased coming from a criminal defense attorney. But the reality is that handling a criminal case without an attorney can be a bad idea mainly because, as a defendant, you do not have the skills and experience of a criminal defense attorney.

That said, sometimes it can make sense for a defendant to represent themselves. Generally, the less severe the criminal charges, the safer it is for you to defend yourself. For instance, if you are being charged with a minor traffic offense, you may be able to successfully handle your case without the help of an attorney. On the other hand, if you are being charged with, for example, a violent offense such as assault or battery, it would be best for you to hire an attorney.

However, even if yours is a minor criminal charge, before deciding whether or not to hire a criminal defense attorney, you need to consider how a conviction will affect you now and in the future. Some offenses come with minor immediate consequences but have serious implications in the future. For instance, in some cases, if a person re-offends, the penalties for a second conviction are more severe than those for the first offense. Also, some criminal offenses that seem minor have collateral consequences.

How Does a Judge Determine if a Defendant is Competent?

As mentioned earlier, a defendant can only represent themselves if a judge determines they are competent. So, how is competency determined? The following are some of the factors that judges weigh when deciding whether a defendant is competent to represent themselves in a criminal trial;

  • Age of defendant
  • Level of education of defendant
  • Whether the defendant understands English
  • The seriousness of the criminal charge

Tips on How to Self-represent Yourself in a Criminal Trial

Self-representing yourself in a criminal case is quite risky. But if you decide to forgo retaining a skilled criminal defense attorney, you must know how you can be the best “attorney” for yourself. The following are some tips to keep in mind if you choose to represent yourself in a criminal trial;

  • Always show up to court on time
  • Be courteous and respectful
  • Dress professionally

Contact an NYC Criminal Defense Attorney

Even if you believe that you can successfully represent yourself in your criminal case, it is advisable that you at least seek guidance from an attorney. The skilled and dedicated NYC criminal defense attorney, Mark I. Cohen, can help you understand the charges against you and the best course of action to take that will help you achieve a positive outcome. Call Mark I. Cohen, Esq. at 212-732-0002 to discuss your case.

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"... Mr. Cohen's effort... in everything he has done before the Court, is A-Plus... [R]ecently, in another case... [before me], the result he achieved for his client... was quite impressive." Honorable Kenneth M. Karas, United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York.


"So I have very sophisticated counsel here and, Mr. Cohen, [your client] is very fortunate in having you as his attorney, and I hope he appreciates that." – Quote from the Honorable Denise L. Cote, United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York.


"As Mark Cohen, a defense lawyer who has tried cases throughout the city and was a prosecutor in the Bronx, pointed out, there is a saying among defense lawyers in New York." – As provided in the New York Times City Room Blog.

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