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6 Reasons Why You Should NOT Go to Court Alone

judge cartoon There are hundreds of websites written for people who want to represent themselves. Everyone in the United States has access to Google and Bing. Most people with at least some computer savvy can locate major case decisions for DUIs, divorce and criminal offenses with a few swipes on their smartphones. Here’s the cold fact: while you may effectively represent yourself in some limited cases, if you have been charged with anything other than a petty offense or traffic ticket, or if you’re embarking on a divorce or family law case and don’t want to give everything away to the opposing side, you should strongly consider speaking to an attorney first. And after speaking to that attorney (and maybe a few others), you should probably hire one of them. Here are 6 reasons why you should not (I repeat: NO NO NO) represent yourself in court, regardless of everything else you may have read online.

1. So you want to go pro se, but you don’t know what the words “pro se” mean?

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard lousy attorneys or unrepresented defendants tell the court they’d like to “squash” a warrant. Do you know the right word to use in that last sentence? It’s “quash” and if you didn’t know this, you probably should not be representing yourself in court. Courtrooms have a certain vocab, a Latin-heavy lingo, that you may not be used to hearing in everyday life. Every document served in court has its own legal title: petition, citation, motion, answer, response. Every hearing has a different name: first appearance, arraignment, setting, pretrial conference, disposition etc. Stop your head from spinning on all of the legal jargon and hire an attorney so you don’t have to think so hard. P.S. Pro se translates to “for oneself,” as in going to court for yourself. Remember this.

2. The judge will not like you if you represent yourself.

Yes, you have the right to represent yourself in court. However, nobody likes it. Should you decide to represent yourself, it’s likely you’ll hear the judge advise you once or more about that decision. Sometimes judges will even slickly try to talk you out of going pro se (I know you now know what pro se means). Representing yourself means the clerks and judges will have to take more time to explain things to you. This will effect court efficiency and most judges love efficiency. Also, some defendants/respondents/petitioners come as cocky or arrogant as they huff and puff and address the Court. Have you heard Judge Judy react to arrogant people on her show? I’ve seen judges come down similarly on parties. I’ve heard a judge actually tell the parties, “This is not Judge Judy!” when courtroom decorum wasn’t followed.

3. You’ll get out of court faster.

In most jurisdictions, attorneys are heard before everyone else. That means if you have an attorney, he or she can jump up and have your case called toward the beginning of the docket. That means you get to skip being bored and restless listening to all of the other cases drone on before the judge gets to your name, Zachary Zagat, printed last on her alphabetically listed docket. 4. Every courthouse and courtroom is different. You can’t research that online. I’ve practiced in Colorado for almost a decade now and I’ve appeared in eight different counties/jurisdictions so far. Every jurisdiction runs a little differently from the next. While a pro se or sovereign focused website will give you a general overview of what you might expect of the court process, that website might not be specific to your jurisdiction and I’m certain there will be no details about how the courtroom operates in your assigned division in your particular jurisdiction. I suppose you could sit in on dockets for hours beforehand and get a feel for your judge–and I’ve seen pro se defendants do that sort of thing–but who has that kind of time? You’re better off spending that time shopping around for an attorney who you feel is on your side and competent to take your case. And speaking of online research, printing out Wikipedia pages and webmd.com articles to present to the Court at a hearing will have little to no impact on the outcome of your case. There’s this big book of things called The Rules of Evidence, which dictates what kind of evidence gets action in a case. You’ll be held to a standard pretty close to a regular attorney and that means you’ll have to play by the same Rules.

5. An experienced attorney knows the court’s quirks and preferences.

Remember the classic comedy, My Cousin Vinny? Vinny may have (spoiler alert) won the trial, but he sure looked ridiculous along the way. And he was an actual law school graduate. I suggest you find an attorney who has experience practicing in the courthouse where your case is scheduled. When I say “practicing,” I mean standing in front of the bar in the courtroom on a regular basis, reciting his bar registration number from memory for the record without hesitation, and addressing the judge from the lectern. A cousin of a friend of a friend who does real estate law probably won’t be of help to you on your felony burglary case that’s postured for a jury trial, even if his retainer is bargain basement. Why not choose the attorney who can name a couple of the judges in the courthouse and knows that, for instance, Judge Matthews is a woman?

6. Have you met Miranda?

Don’t trust what you see on TV. I’ve had dozens of potential clients tell me that their cases should be thrown out since the police officer never read them their rights. Because, they say, on Law & Order, or CSI or Brooklyn 99, the cops always read the Miranda rights, right? Not so fast; there is no automatic rule saying a cop has to read you anything upon first contact. You’re really only supposed to get those famous Miranda advisements read to you if you’re facing custodial interrogation, a term which can be complicated and is outside the scope of this blog post. And even if you happen to be in a situation of custodial interrogation and you weren’t read your Miranda rights, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire case gets tossed. There are nuances that need to be considered. If you’re going to remember anything about Miranda upon reading this post, remember the second of the rights: You have the right to an attorney. If you can’t afford an attorney, one may be appointed for you. Take advantage of this right and don’t go it alone on your legal matter.

Till Immigration Laws Do We Part: Immigration and Marriage in the US

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A poor judgment choice from when she was a teenager as a citizen of Mexico now prevents a young woman from living with her new groom and family in his hometown of El Paso, Texas.  The couple in this story from the Texas Tribune got married in the middle of the Paso del Norte bridge, an international man-made structure that literally bridges the gap between the United States and Mexico.  The bride may never be able to step off that bridge and onto US soil to be with her new husband.  The scene of the wedding was by all accounts meant to draw attention to their situation, which was brought on by the 1996 immigration bill signed by former president Bill Clinton which said that a person who lies about being a US citizen shall be barred from re-entry into the United States.  Now an adult, the couple feel the effects of that bride’s prior misrepresentation of citizenship.

The issue of marriage and immigration can be extremely complicated.  From the logistics of bringing a foreign spouse into the United States to family sponsorship, green card expiration dates and which forms to complete and file with the federal government, few areas of law are more complex than immigration.  The law on immigration related issues is constantly changing and evolving.  Organizations like American Families United have backed an act that would allow judges some discretion when it comes to deportation or re-admission reviews in cases where a subject has an immediate family member who his a United States citizen.  Another interesting issue comes with the recent striking of DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, via landmark case United States v. Windsor which ruled that same-sex marriages would be recognized by the federal government.  The result of that case, in small part, is that immigration laws have new effects on same-sex bi-national couples who marry and seek visas or green cards.

If you or a loved one has ever had to fill out an application for citizenship or green cards, you know that the paperwork and forms can be complex and voluminous.  Filing fees for various types of status tend to be expensive. For assistance and to be sure your paperwork is filled out correctly so that you are not faced with mistakes that mean paying a filing fee twice, you should always consider talking to a local immigration attorney.

 

 

Kids Committing Murder

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Children under 18 years old are committing more and more major criminal offenses, and video games like Grand Theft Auto cannot be to blame.  On October 11, 2013, an 11 year old boy in Washington state was found guilty of conspiring to commit murder against a 10 year old girl.  His reason for planning to stab the 10 year old girl to death?  Because he found her to be “really annoying.” The judge in the case called it the most serious case he had ever come across in his career.  Defense counsel attempted to present evidence that the boy could not separate fact and reality from fantasy, a theory which was ultimately rejected by the judge.  However, they were able to successfully present some evidence that the boy suffered from bipolar disorder.  Still, the fifth grader was ultimately found guilty of the crime and acquitted of criminal tampering.  He was tried as a juvenile because of his very young age and faces sentencing in early November 2013.

Even closer to home, juvenile Macyo January is accused of committing a string of burglaries throughout Colorado Springs and El Paso County in Colorado, and during one bust he unexpectedly came across homeowners, a young newlywed couple, and allegedly murdered them.  Evidence presented in pretrial proceedings revealed that the wife, Whitney Butler was pregnant when she was shot in her head and killed as she kneeled over her dying husband, David Dunlap in a scene and image that will be forever etched into the minds of jurors, should the case go to a jury trial.  While January could have been tried in juvenile court because of his age at the time of crime, a judge determined that he would be tried for murder as an adult.  Courts may consider several factors in determining whether a Colorado juvenile will be tried in juvenile court or adult felony court, including the severity of the crime, how close a child is to the age of 18 at the time of the offense, and the child’s mental capacity or emotional maturity.  In the case of January, he was four month’s short of turning 18 when he committed the offense and documents from the Division of Youth Corrections in Colorado reveal that Macyo January self-reported that he would have no problem committing murder if he “knew he could get away with it.”

Cases like this are certainly alarming, and for the most part, prosecutors do not feel overwhelming senses of victory when a very serious case involving a child ends.  In cases of conviction victims and their families may feel that some justice was served, but overall there are larger societal and cultural concerns at play.  Whether its a serious case or a minor juvenile offense, consider consulting an attorney with experience in Juvenile Court before you commit to any plea agreement.  Attorney Marika Frady in Colorado Springs, Colorado, has years of experience handling juvenile court cases, including misdemeanors, felonies and sexual offenses.  She also spent two years as the deputy district attorney in charge of determining which charges to file in the approximately 1500 cases submitted by law enforcement agencies annually.  While the juvenile court system in Colorado is designed to mimic the penalties and procedures of the adult justice system, there are key differences that you need to know and scheduling a consultation with a knowledgeable lawyer is the fastest way to get those answers.

 

 

 

 

I'm the Grandparent -- Don't I have Rights to my Grandchild?

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Fact:  In the United States, grandparents do not automatically enjoy legal rights to visit their grandchildren or gain custody of their grandchildren.

This is an interesting fact given that a 2011 study found that grandparents were the primary caregivers for 3 million of the children in the county and a second study determined that 1 out of every 10 U.S. children lives in an extended household that included one or more grandparents.  Certainly grandparents play an important role in a child’s upbringing, but what if a parent just does not want grandparent input or does not want the child to have a relationship with his/her grandparent at all?

Each state has its own laws in place regarding the extent to which a grandparent may petition a court for visitation with a grandchild.  Some states are very lenient while others barely allow grandparent any standing to bring the issue before a court of law.  Colorado is middle-of-the-road on the issue of grandparent rights to visitation and child custody.  In Colorado, section 19-1-117 of the Children’s Code in Colorado Revised Statutes covers grandparent visitation and it does not provide a particularly broad remedy to grandparents.  The crux of the Colorado Children’s Code is that a court shall determine whether its ruling or decision would be in the “best interest” of the child.  This is the standard by which most courts across the country decide. In deciding the “best interest” of a child, a court will consider the totality of the evidence and circumstances surrounding the grandparents’ request.

Prior to a grandparent even considering a motion to the court for visitation in Colorado, there must be an already existing or open legal action in process.  From there, there are legally three situations in which a grandparent may raise the issue of visitation of a grandchild with a court:

  1. Child custody has been granted to someone other than the child’s parents (not including adoptions);
  2. The parents’ marriage was annulled or the parents are otherwise divorced or legally separated; and,
  3. The child’s parent (the grandparent’s child) is deceased.

With respect to grandparent rights to custody or “parental rights” of a grandchild, courts in Colorado are somewhat more limiting.  The controlling source of law is the Uniform Dissolution of Marriage Act (UMDA), particularly section 14-10-123.  Grandparents may petition a court for parental rights if the grandchild is not under the physical care of his/her own parent or where the grandchild has been under the physical care of a grandparent for six months or more.  If a grandchild was under a grandparent’s physical care for six months and that arrangement terminated, a grandparent may file for parental rights so long as the petition is filed within six months of the termination.  In most cases, the proper motion to file is called a Motion for Allocation of Parental Responsibilities.

From a practical standpoint, in many cases courts tend to rule in favor of grandparent visitation, particularly in cases where the child’s parents are fairly young and dependent financially or emotionally on their own parents (the grandparents).  Courts appear to see a benefit in a child being cared for both at a nuclear level and via extended family, and this makes logical sense.  Because the laws surrounding grandparent rights are not exactly black and white in Colorado courts, any grandparent may benefit by speaking to a local attorney who can help clarify the issues and determine a strategy in those cases where a grandparent’s situation may fit the statutory parameters for grandparent visitation and custody.

What Happens to an Engagement Ring in a Divorce?

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Upsetting all Las Vegas odds, Kim Kardashian eventually gave back the 20+ carat stunner engagement ring Kris Humphries gave her before their 72 days of wedded bliss.  Perhaps your ring isn’t as ostentatious.  Still, it may possess some serious emotional and financial value.  So what happens to an engagement ring in a divorce or dissolution action?

The Colorado courts’ consensus is that an engagement rings is a “conditional gift,” or gift given by one person to another person in contemplation of marriage.  Once the marriage actually happens, the condition is met and the ring becomes the receiver’s separate property.  If the parties end up divorcing, then legally the receiver gets to keep the ring.

If the receiver terminates the engagement before marriage, then the condition of the gift has not be met, and the ring is to be returned.  In Colorado generally, fault does not come into play.  It does not matter if one person or both caused the marriage not to take place; the law says the ring gets returned to the giver.

However, there are cases in Colorado where courts have considered the issue of fault to the extent that a man had given a woman an engagement ring but it was found that the man had been abusing the woman and that was the reason the marriage was called off and the engagement ended.  In those cases, courts have determined that the woman can keep the engagement ring.

Every case is different.  There may be other instances of fault which a court may consider, or your case might be more concrete.  Consider consulting an attorney to discuss your specific situation.

 

 

— Marika Frady, Esq. is an attorney handling Divorce, Family Law, DUI and Bankruptcy cases in greater El Paso County, Colorado including Colorado Springs, Fountain, and Manitou Springs, as well as Teller, Pueblo and Douglas Counties.  Connect with her on Google Plus today!