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  • Writer's pictureChris Zachar

When do you really need a lawyer?

Don't let the police take a "cheep shot" get a good lawyer!

I get a lot of calls from prospective clients asking whether I think they really need a lawyer to help them with a traffic ticket, police investigation, or criminal charge. I’m always willing to listen and give my honest opinion on whether a prospective client actually needs a lawyer. While every case is different, I'd like to share what I generally tell people wondering whether they need a lawyer. In the next post I will discuss what to look for when you are hiring a criminal defense lawyer.


Got caught speeding? Run a stop sign or red light? A traffic ticket can be a major inconvenience that costs you money, raises your insurance rates, and put points on your driving record. But generally speaking, most people can handle traffic tickets without a lawyer. I always advise people who are concerned with traffic tickets to plead not guilty and go to the DA pretrial conference. Almost always the prosecutor will agree to dismiss one or more of the tickets, or amend speeding tickets down to a less serious offense. Sometimes prosecutors will agree to dismiss citations entirely if you complete traffic safety school. The point is, an hour of effort can get most people a substantially better resolution than simply paying the ticket, and given the relatively low stakes, it doesn’t make sense in many cases to hire a lawyer.

However, there are exceptions to this rule. Certain license classes, particularly people with CDL’s, minors on a probationary license, and people close to the 12 point limit are subject to more serious penalties and could lose their licenses as a result of a simple traffic ticket. Sometimes it pays to have an attorney handle your case if a traffic citation if you fall into one of these categories.


Most of the time I encourage people calling about underage drinking tickets, municipal tickets for possession of marijuana, and social host violations to attend the first court appearance on their own and plead not guilty. Young people cited for these offenses are often offered an option to complete a pre-charging program that keeps the matter off their record (in La Crosse it’s called Unity House). This usually involves a small amount of community service and completing an alcohol or drug assessment. For the most part, clients can get this resolution without hiring a lawyer.

I will generally encourage clients to consider hiring an attorney if the prosecutor refuses to offer a pretrial diversion and the client is worried about a citation impacting student aid, background checks for jobs or the military, or the client could be charged criminally.


This one is a little more complicated. Wisconsin is the only state where first offense drunk driving (OWI) is not a crime. Some people wonder whether they should handle a civil OWI themselves. In most cases I will encourage a client charged with OWI-first offense to seriously consider hiring an attorney. Impaired driving offenses can be hyper-technical cases to handle on your own and carry a range of consequences beyond a fine.

Almost everyone who receives a ticket for first offense drunk driving will also have to handle proceedings to revoke their license before the ticket is decided. This requires people who were cited for OWI to be aware of the timelines and file appropriate hearing requests with the Department of Transportation and follow-up motions in the circuit or municipal court to preserve your license. If this isn’t done correctly, you’ll lose your license before your case is even over. If you want to contest a civil OWI you also need to be aware of time limits for requesting a jury trial, requirements for demanding a refusal hearing, and how to obtain the police reports, hygiene tests, and squad videos.

Additionally, an attorney will be aware of ways to minimize driver’s license revocations, allow a client to immediately obtain an occupational license, and prevent the requirement that a client install an ignition interlock device. These tend to be technical issues that might be difficult for a first-time offender to handle on their own.

Motions and trials tend to be very technical and require knowledge of field sobriety testing, blood alcohol curves, and operation and maintenance of intoxilyzers and blood hygiene testing equipment. If you want to go to trial or believe you shouldn’t have been arrested, don’t try this without an attorney. Anyone with a CDL should absolutely hire an attorney.


Citations for overfishing, fishing or hunting without a license, and poaching can carry mandatory periods of loss of DNR privileges. This means that one ticket can prevent you from hunting, fishing, trapping, or ice fishing for years at a time. If a client is serious about hunting or fishing, I always encourage them to hire an attorney to deal with the DNR to try and preserve these rights.


Context is important. If you are a victim or witness, there is generally low risk when speaking to the police. But if the police want to talk to you about something you are accused of, don’t go in there alone. The police are not your friend, they are trained to get you to incriminate yourself, and even innocent people cannot explain their way out of a criminal investigation most of the time. I always recommend hiring an attorney if you think you’re a suspect.


If you are charged with a crime, you need a lawyer to protect you. It doesn’t matter whether the charge is a misdemeanor or a felony, state or federal. At the very least a criminal charge could leave you with a permanent criminal record, but could also result in fines, probation, jail or prison. Some cases have mandatory minimum terms in jail or prison and others could require you to register as a sex offender. Whether you are innocent, guilty, or somewhere in between a lawyer is trained to protect you at every stage of an often-complicated process. Don’t do this alone.


It is relatively common for people going through a bad breakup to get served with a restraining order. The technical terms for the most common restraining orders are “harassment injunction” and “domestic abuse injunction.” In La Crosse County these matters are heard by the Family Court Commissioner, but either side can appeal to the circuit court judge. Domestic abuse injunctions result in an automatic loss of firearm privileges, and all types of injunctions will appear on most background checks. If you decide to testify, what you say could be used as the basis for a criminal prosecution. With rare exceptions, I generally recommend that anyone who wants to contest a domestic abuse or harassment injunction hire an attorney.


You should probably have a lawyer. A good one, not Rudi Giuliani.

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