A lot of people feel like they need to just plead guilty. They may think that hiring a lawyer is too expensive, or that nothing can be done to help them. Sometimes people also feel guilty or ashamed for whatever happened and just want to accept responsibility and move on.
I'm going to start off by giving the most lawyerly answer to the question possible. Depends.
But to try to give some more specific help:
- Everyone arrested for any domestic violence charge should consult with a criminal defense attorney before court.
Everyone arrested for a General Sessions level domestic violence charge (DV 2nd, DV 3rd or DVHAN), will need to retain a lawyer.
- Most people charged with DV 3rd should retain a lawyer, but those who remain committed to pleading guilty at their initial court date may decide they don't need a lawyer.
Everyone charged with any domestic violence case regardless of situation should consult with a criminal defense lawyer before court. I've consulted with hundreds of people charged with domestic violence and almost all of them have some level of misunderstanding of the legal process, their rights, or what the law actually is. Also a great number have felt that their situation was hopeless, and didn't understand how even what to them seems like an impossible case actually can be successfully turned around. Finally many do not understand the lifetime ramifications of a criminal conviction, and how a domestic violence conviction can negatively affect their family for years to come. Whatever your situation, meet with a lawyer before court.
If the charge is in General Sessions everyone will need to hire a lawyer. This is the same court that processes child molestation and murder charges. The rules and procedures are the same. These charges all carry possible prison sentences (even for first offenses with no physical injury). This system of court is designed to work when defendants have lawyers. There are a lot of specific options in negotiating plea agreements or structuring a sentence that may be available, but the court can't give an unpresented defendant legal advice.
If the charge is a DV 3rd in Magistrate or Municipal Court (not General Sessions), then you may be able to get by with just pleading guilty without a lawyer. This is almost always a terrible, bad idea (I think out of hundreds and hundreds of DV 3rd (or old CDV 1st) cases we've handled, this was determined to be the best strategy 1% of the time). This means that you would accept all the penalties with a conviction (record, restrictions, fine and/or jail). There usually are options that can help reduce or minimize the charge or the sentence that you would be giving up, and by entering a plea at the first available court proceeding you also give up the right to possibly have the case dismissed.
I've also seen many people who do not want to hire a lawyer because they simply feel so guilty about what has happened. They don't want to spend money that they would rather spend on their spouse, who they feel bad about how they treated them. This is a very understandable feeling, but it can be short sided. Legal fees on a DV 3rd case can often-times be less than the fine that the court can impose. A conviction also can hamper employment prospects indefinitely, meaning that a guilty plea can result in a lifetime of lower wages and benefits that causes everyone in the family to suffer (defendant, spouse and children).
The first step for anyone is to see a lawyer before court. Then decided what your next step is. I believe that no one should make a final decision about how to plead until they have first consulted with a lawyer, had a chance to review the police reports, photographs, and other evidence in their case, and after an opportunity to have the witnesses provide an updated statement after a cooling off period.