I usually appear before the three magisterial district judges here in State College, Pennsylvania several times a week, so I often see summary offense trials while waiting for my own clients’ cases to be called. One of the most painful things for me to watch is a pro se defendant in a summary trial. It is like being a life guard trapped behind a glass screen, while watching a person who can’t swim drown before my eyes.
In case you are unfamiliar with the term “pro se,” it means a defendant representing himself. A recent pro se defendant I saw before Judge Carmine Prestia provided a text book case of what can go wrong when a person is foolish enough to try to represent himself. The defendant was charged with retail theft at McLanahan’s on College Avenue. His defense was not that he did not commit the retail theft, but rather that it was unfair that he had been charged. Yes, you read that right. In an animated tone, he expressed the inherit unfairness of being handcuffed in the middle of a busy day in front of hundreds of fellow Penn State students and driven to the Centre County Correctional Facility for fingerprinting. He asserted that his treatment was unfair, because he had heard of other people caught shoplifting being able to pay for the merchandise, and being released without the police being called. To bolster this argument he tried to testify that he heard of another student who was caught stealing at the Allen Street McLanahan’s that same day, but was not charged. Judge Prestia correctly noted that this was both triple hearsay and not relevant to the case before him.
Needless to say, this pro se defendant was convicted. There could have been no other result. His defense was not a defense, but a confession, accompanied by whining. After the trial, I talked to the arresting officer who told me that he would have been okay with the defendant participating in a first time offender’s program for retail theft, which would have allowed him to have the charge dismissed and have his record expunged. The defendant never explored this option because he did not have an attorney and did not know any better, and the cop certainly was not going to inform the defendant of such an option, as right before trial, the defendant was casting aspersions at the cop and the loss prevention officer about his perceived unfairness of the situation. Thus, this young man now has a criminal record maintained by entities such as the Pennsylvania State Police Central Repository of Criminal Records, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts and the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC). This all could have been avoided had the defendant hired a knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer.
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, Pennsylvania. He limits his practice to criminal law and has extensive experience representing people charged with summary offenses. http://www.mattmlaw.com/Criminal-Defense-Overview/Summary-Offenses.shtml