It is becoming much more common that people who are charged with a misdemeanor simply go to court and plead guilty at their arraignment, without ever speaking to an attorney. The judge will sometimes convey the prosecutor’s offer, or will tell the defendant what the sentence will be if they plead guilty, and the defendant will simply accept the consequences. Any attorney will strongly discourage this practice because ANY criminal conviction can have extraordinary consequences that may not be immediately known without further information. While pleading guilty may seem easier and more convenient than hiring an attorney, it can later lead to extreme inconvenience and loss of a professional license or a job.
Consider this example – a resident alien is driving under the influence of both alcohol and Vicodin. A plea to driving under the influence of drugs has severe immigration consequences, whereas a plea to driving under the influence of alcohol does not. The defense attorney will structure the plea to avoid immigration consequences. The direct penalties will be the same, but the defendant will not be deported later. Another example is vandalism – a charge of vandalism will result in a driver’s license suspension if the defendant is under age 25. This is only the beginning of a non-exhaustive list of possible “collateral consequences” of misdemeanor convictions: loss of professional license, loss of driver’s license, bar to military service, loss of right to own or possess guns, deportation, or a bar to receiving student loans.
Good attorneys will be able to talk to you about your job, your background, and your life plans in order to figure out the best result in your case.
Some people go to court and plead guilty because they feel they did the crime and it is best to just face the consequences. A person should read the charges carefully and at least consult with an attorney (usually office or phone consultations are free) before simply accepting guilt. Many prosecutors will file cases alleging the most serious possible charges even where there is only a slight possibility that the defendant would be found guilty of the most serious charge. Take this simple example, a person may be charged with battery where they are only factually guilty of fighting in public. The person who goes to court and pleads guilty to battery, failing to ask for the lesser charge, will lose the right to own guns. Another common issue is the per se driving under the influence violations, also known as driving with a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher. Most non-lawyers will not know how to evaluate evidence that they had .08 blood-alcohol content and that this level could (and should) be challenged at trial. To know how to properly evaluate evidence and the science behind the evidence, the accused needs to have experience reviewing results and familiarity with the (in)accuracy of the science behind it to understand when the results will be upheld as valid.
The issues raised above are simply the most common evidentiary issues that are overlooked by individuals who do not have an attorney. This list does not include legal errors where accused individuals plead guilty, but otherwise would had charges dismissed because, for example, their speedy trial right or 4th Amendment rights were violated. When you or someone you love is facing what seem like insignificant charges, consult with an attorney before making a decision that can have extraordinary collateral consequences for you in the future.