Can I Represent Myself in Chicago Criminal Court?

man representing himselfPeople charged with criminal and traffic matters in Chicago and in other courts across the state of Illinois ask us this question often. After all, money is tight for many people these days and if it’s possible to do something yourself and end up with the same result, many people would like to do that. There’s no question that “do it yourself’ is usually a good thing, so long as you’re not harmed in the process.

Is it Smart to Represent Yourself in Court?

Of course, there are some things that people would never try to handle themselves. If you have a cavity, you’re not going to drill your own teeth. If you need an operation, you’re not going to perform surgery on yourself either. Even experienced doctors and dentists don’t operate on themselves. That would be crazy. If you happen to have experience in plumbing or electrical work, you’ll probably fix your own toilet or re-wire your own lamp. But if you don’t, playing around with those things may flood your home or cause you to be electrocuted. The same caution is true for lawyers. When an attorney is charged with even a small traffic violation, most criminal and traffic lawyers will ask another lawyer to represent them in court. That’s because even though a lawyer may have the experience and knowledge of the law, it’s too personal matter a matter to do yourself. It’s usually best for another person to look at your criminal or traffic situation objectively and help you determine what’s best for you, without your own emotions entering into the process.

But Will a Judge Let Me if I Ask?

If what you’re charged with is a minor traffic ticket or a local ordinance that carries no possibility of jail under the law, then yes. When a judge knows that the maximum penalty doesn’t include jail, no matter how badly you may end up handling your own case, he or she will generally let you do it yourself. Technically, if you insist on representing yourself and you appear to be sane, a Judge will likely let you represent yourself on virtually anything, including murder. Is that a good idea? Probably not.

The legal word that courts use when they allow someone to do a criminal or traffic case by themselves is “Pro Se”, which means “By Yourself”. But just because jail isn’t a possibility, doesn’t mean that representing yourself is without serious possible consequences though. Depending upon the outcome of your case, it may affect:

  • Your ability to get a job – It’s hard enough to get a job these days, let alone get a job when you have a bad traffic or criminal background. Many employers even run credit checks on prospective applicants. Criminal cases most commonly stand in the way of employment, as almost all applications ask whether you’ve been convicted of a felony, although some ask also about misdemeanors and others just refer to “criminal cases”. But traffic offenses can also impact a person’s ability to gain employment, especially when the charges are serious such as DUI, Reckless Driving, or Driving on a Suspended License or Revoked License. If you’re a truck driver with a CDL, an Uber driver, or anyone who drives for a living, your traffic record may definitely affect your future prospects.
  • Immigration – If you don’t have full U.S. citizenship status, any criminal case or traffic offense has the potential to negatively impact your immigration status. Obviously, serious felonies, crimes of moral turpitude (dishonest crimes such as Retail Theft or Burglary) and violent offenses (such as Aggravated Battery, Domestic Battery or Assault) may result in adverse immigration consequences, but even traffic matters like Aggravated Driving Under the Influence can under some circumstances result in removal.
  • Driving Privileges – Some criminal cases such as Auto Theft and Criminal Trespass to Vehicle may result in a loss of driving privileges even though they don’t specifically relate to a person’s driving skills. When it comes to very minor traffic violations like speeding or failure to Reduce Speed to Avoid an Accident, most defendants assume that because a Judge allows them to handle the traffic matter themselves must mean that the offense isn’t very serious and won’t cause them harm. Although sometimes this is correct, other times, it’s most certainly wrong. There are dozens of little-known statutory provisions in the Illinois Vehicle Code that may result in the suspension or revocation of a person’s driving license. Even a conviction for a small Failure to Yield ticket may under some circumstances result in a suspension when it joins with other minor tickets that were recently received.
  • Violation of other cases – If you’ve been placed by a Judge on any period of supervision, probation, or conditional discharge, whether in a Chicago court or any other court in the country, one thing is almost always true about any such sentence: you will have been ordered to stay out of trouble during the pendency of the sentence. So even though the traffic or criminal matter you’ve now been charged with may be relatively minor, the effects of any plea can be very serious indeed if the violation occurred during the period that you were on a court sentence. What does that mean? Sometimes not much - as the court is not required to violate a person’s sentence for all violations. But other times, a court can violate a person’s sentence and then re-sentence them to anything up to and including jail (depending on the level of the original crime).

Whether to Hire a Lawyer is a Very Important Decision

It’s been said that “you don’t know what you don’t know.” In the context of criminal and traffic offenses, this means that although you may work out a deal on your case that you’re happy with, it may unfortunately later cause you other problems that you never expected. Experienced attorneys, such as the legal team at Mitchell S. Sexner & Associates LLC, look at the whole picture to try to predict how your case may affect you down the road in order to avoid these potential problems. Call our offices any time of day at (312) 644-0444 to speak to a knowledgeable attorney.

Written by Mitchell S. Sexner Last Updated : January 13, 2023