Courts Must Correct Pro Se Defendant's Misunderstandings

By Robyn Hagan Cain on July 21, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Wednesday that a court has a duty to correct a pro se criminal defendant regarding his obvious misunderstanding of the law.

The case, U.S.A. v. Hung Thien Ly, involved a Georgia doctor charged with 129 counts of unlawfully dispensing certain controlled substances outside the usual course of medical practice without a legitimate purpose. Ly asked the court to appoint counsel, arguing that he would otherwise be forced to represent himself because he could not afford an attorney; his request was denied because he allegedly placed all his assets in his wife’s name to obtain counsel at public expense.

The magistrate judge in the case engaged in multiple discussions with Ly to inform him of the dangers of representing himself at trial, including that a lawyer could help Ly decide whether to take the stand in his own defense. When Ly persisted in representing himself, the magistrate judge told Ly that he could not come to Ly's aid if Ly made mistakes during the trial.

At his arraignment, Ly refused to enter a plea, so the magistrate judge directed the clerk to enter a plea of not guilty to all charges. Before doing so, the magistrate judge again warned Ly of the dangers of representing himself.

After presenting a disastrous - and mostly inadmissible - case, the judge asked Ly if he planned to take the stand. Ly, unaware that he could testify in a narrative, explained to the judge that he could not take the stand in his own defense without a lawyer to ask him questions. The judge did not correct Ly's misunderstanding.

The jury convicted Ly on all 129 counts, sentencing him 97 months in prison and fining him $200,000.

The Eleventh Circuit concluded that the district court was required to correct Ly's misunderstanding of his right to testify because it knew that he was confused. The circuit noted that "requiring a district court to correct a pro se defendant's basic misunderstanding regarding his fundamental right to testify is not a heavy burden," but advised that this case falls within "exceptional, narrowly defined circumstances" that trigger a district court's duty to discuss with a criminal defendant his decision of whether to testify.

While lawyers generally do not need to be well-versed in the rules of pro se litigation, the Eleventh Circuit's ruling may prove useful; defendants who represent themselves often fail, and generate appellate business for lawyers.

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