Criminal Cases in Michigan – Do I need a Lawyer?

In my role as Criminal Defense Lawyer with an office in Macomb County, I have contact with all kinds of people from the Metro-Detroit area. Some of these people are the Defendant’s themselves, some family, and others interested friends. Sometimes, the facts of a given case are so completely beyond dispute that I will be asked by the Defendant or their family or friends “Do I (or does the Person charged with a crime) really need a Lawyer?”

Now, you can probably guess my answer to that question, but the reason for it may not be as obvious. Sure, there is always the possibility of some technicality coming to light which can be discovered by an astute Lawyer, but the focus of this article is more about what a Defense Lawyer can do in pretty much each and every case, no matter how bad things might appear, rather than on some once-in-a-blue-moon turn of luck.

68918_law_education_series_3.jpgFirst, and just as a general observation, try and recall anyone in the Public Spotlight who has ever been charged with a crime and didn’t have a Lawyer. Even in the age of video, where some crimes are caught on tape and a person’s guilt appears to be a foregone conclusion (like the Police Officers caught on tape in the Rodney King beating), anyone familiar with the Legal System will always have a lawyer as they maneuver through it.

There’s an old saying, referring to Lawyers, that “The Lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.” Lawyers, perhaps more than anyone, recognize the importance of having Professional Representation. When Geoffrey Feiger faced (and was ultimately acquitted of) Federal charges related to Political Contributions, he hired a Lawyer (none other than the legendary Gerry Spence). And whether you like him or not (I do, and not just because I’m a Lawyer) you’ll have to admit that Feiger is one good Lawyer. I’ll bet most people would be hard-pressed to name any other Lawyer as good as Feiger, much less anyone even remotely in his league. Yet, despite being more than able to take on (and usually beat) anyone in a Courtroom, Fieger didn’t do that; instead, he had Professional Representation.

So, what can a Lawyer do for someone who, for whatever reason (really bad prior record, crime caught on tape, solid confession, etc.) appears to be in a hopeless (and helpless) situation? What should a person look for in a Lawyer that will help them decide who to hire, and just as importantly, not to hire?

Unless taking the case to trial and winning is a real option, then a Lawyer who knows the Court and the Prosecutors and the other parties who will be involved in the case can help by, first and foremost, not doing things that will make matters worse. Let’s look at an example: Say a person with 2 prior DUI (Drunk Driving) convictions is arrested and charged with a 3rd (Felony) DUI offense. Let’s assume, for purposes of this article, that the case against this person is rock-solid and there is really no chance of beating the charge. Now, depending on which County the case will be heard in, what an experienced Lawyer will do will vary.

In Macomb County, it is still possible to have this 3rd offense Felony DUI reduced to a Misdemeanor (2nd offense). That possibility pretty much does not exist in Oakland and Wayne Counties. I know this because of my familiarity with these Courts. Thus, if I was hired in this case, I’d try, right out of the gate, to negotiate this deal if the case was being heard in Macomb County.

If the case was to be heard in Oakland County, I’d know better than to waste my time trying to negotiate for something that can’t happen. Yet in Oakland County, most of the Circuit Judges are willing to have the Prosecutor and the Defense Attorney and the County Probation Department come right up to the Bench, during Court, and discuss a sentencing deal, which is then, if accepted, part of the plea arrangement.

This process, which is pretty much standard practice in Oakland County, involves what’s called a “Cobbs Plea.” Under a “Cobbs Plea,” in exchange for the Defendant’s guilty plea, the Court agrees to a certain, specific sentence in advance, and as long as things as preliminarily discussed are true (i.e. the Defendant only has 2 prior DUI convictions) the agreement is locked-in. If, for whatever reason, at the time of sentencing, the Court finds that it cannot go along with the agreed-upon sentencing deal (i.e. the Defendant really has 4 prior DUI convictions so his or her record is much worse than was preliminarily thought), the Defendant can back out of the whole thing and withdraw his or her plea.

The point here is that knowing what policies are in place in a particular Prosecutor’s Office, and what each County Circuit Court will, and will not do, is important in knowing what can and cannot be done in any individual case. The same case may well be handled very differently depending on whether it’s being heard in Macomb, Oakland or Wayne County. A person (or even Lawyer, for that matter) who is not aware of these differences is severely disadvantaged, and may miss out on an opportunity to limit his or her losses.

To use another example, a few weeks ago I was contacted by a Client that I have represented a number of times over the last 15 years or so. My Client had been arrested “up north” for a 3rd Offense (Felony) DUI. He wanted to know how much I would need as a retainer to represent him up there. Look, I’m in business to make a living, not send clients away. Yet, I realized that I could not provide for him the level of familiarity I think is necessary to properly handle any given case. I have no clue how the Prosecutor in that “up north” County works, I don’t know any of them, have never dealt with any of them, and don’t even know who the Judges are up there. I’ve never handled a case up there. I had to admit that any fee I charged would be more like tuition than payment for my experience, knowledge and skill.

True, I am a licensed Michigan Attorney, and I could go up there and try and figure things out, but I also know that, barring any way to “beat” the case, I would not have the advantage of the local Attorneys who know the Prosecutors, what they can, cannot, will and will not do, and I have no idea what’s “standard practice” in the Courts up there. As it turns out, I have a longtime Attorney-friend with an office in the next County, and I knew that he regularly appears in that Court. Because of that, he likewise regularly works with that Prosecutor’s Office, as well. The right thing for me to do for my client, whose well-being I genuinely care about, was to refer him to my friend and explain why, if it was me in his shoes, I’d be contacting my Attorney-friend as well. “Knowing you’re way around” any particular Courthouse is a big part of being able to make things better.

Back to our main question, which is essentially why hire a lawyer? The answer lies in the benefit to be gained. When someone asks that question, especially in a tough, or hopeless-appearing case, they are really asking, is there any benefit to hiring a lawyer? And I think the answer is yes, because if you hire a lawyer who knows, from prior experience, the parties (the Court, the Prosecutors, the Probation Department, etc.) that will be involved in the case, then you open up a all kinds of possibilities to work things out in a way that is much better than they may seem. Moreover, you certainly avoid wasting time on things that won’t work, (and testing everyone’s patience in the meantime), and missing opportunities that aren’t or can’t be known to someone who hasn’t been down that same road many times before.