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The tragedy of unrepresented defendants pleading guilty

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Unrepresented criminal defendants do all sorts of harmful things to themselves when they appear for their trial date without a lawyer.

One recent situation took the cake. An unrepresented marijuana possession defendant appeared before one of the area’s more compassionate and just Virginia General District Court judges. The judge asked him if he wanted a trial date postponement to obtain a lawyer. The defendant told the judge that the defendant was going forward with a guilty plea on the advice of his parents. The defendant may have offered that he would soon be going out out of town for college, and that it would be inconvenient to return to court.

The judge then told the defendant that he might qualify for the first-time marijuana defendant program, under Virginia Code § 18.2-251. This is a program that necessitates looking carefully before leaping into it, ideally with a qualified lawyer.

The defendant still insisted on pleading guilty. Bless the judge’s heart, the judge next pointed out to the defendant that a conviction in this case can haunt him for the rest of his life. The defendant still insisted on pleading guilty.

Short of pointing out the defendant’s right to appeal the conviction within ten days for a trial de novo in Circuit Court, and short of assuring a sufficient guilty plea litany to assure a free and voluntary plea, the judge seemed to have no alternative but to accept the defendant’s insistence on pleading guilty right then and there.

Unfortunately, some people seem to mimic improvident behavior from the water or the air, because within minutes of this defendant pleading guilty without a lawyer, another unrepresented man charged with marijuana had his case called, and also entered a guilty plea, despite the same judge’s warnings that he gave the first defendant. This second defendant also entered a guilty plea.

Every criminal defendant needs a qualified lawyer, even if the charge is for such a non-jailable case as intoxicated in public. The above-referenced judge is right. Convictions can haunt people, in ways they may not expect, as to reputation, career, military eligibility, security clearances, educational opportunities, student loans, and obtaining visas to travel to other countries. Moreover, how did both of these unrepresented defendants know whether the essential witness(es) were present for their initial trial dates, and how did they know whether or not they actually had good trial defenses or a chance of getting a good case settlement between the prosecutor and a criminal defense lawyer acting on the defendant’s behalf.

I know of at least one other judge in the same courthouse who has informed unrepresented marijuana defendants of the opportunity to get a dismissal in the 251 program, without pointing out that many people consider such a disposition in an adverse light, to say the least. I do not think this judge intends anything bad with his advice, but only a qualified lawyer can sufficiently advise a defendant on the 251 program.

Bless the judge once again who faced both pro se marijuana defendants, for underlining to them how their guilty pleas would haunt them, for offering them continuances to obtain a lawyer, and for pointing out the option to seek the 251 program, which (when a dismissal results) is less worse than a pot conviction, but still no prize.

When charged with a crime, it is essential to obtain a qualified lawyer.