“Approximately 6 weeks ago, my boyfriend broke it off and proceeded to return a gift bag full of cards and letters I had sent. I was so distraught that I took everything out and burned it in the breezeway of my apartment complex. My neighbor (a buddy of my ex) called the police and fire departments and a report was filed, although I was not arrested, and no property except my own cards and letters was damaged.
I later found out that the neighbors were gunning for me to lose my apartment and have protective services take my children away, due to this incident. I proceeded to issue a formal written apology to both the apartment complex, and each of my neighbors, as well as personally speak with each of them regarding my indiscretion and promising to never allow it to happen again. They did not call protective services, but I have since had to find a new place to live.
I received a notice from the district court three weeks later that I am being charged with arson, and I appeared for arraignment where I stood mute for my plea, because I am a single mother with 2 children and didn’t know how to proceed, but also knew that I couldn’t go to jail.
I am scheduled for a pre-trial hearing on December 5th, and was told I make too much money to qualify for a public defender in our state (Michigan), however, I cannot even afford to buy groceries at this point, let alone retain a lawyer.
I am afraid I could lose my job, my home, my kids, if I am convicted, as the maximum punishment is $500 and 93 days in jail. I will be obtaining the police and fire department reports tomorrow. I really don’t know how to proceed next, and any advice you could give would be immensely appreciated.”
First, you absolutely must find a way to get an attorney. As you point out, your children are at stake. Try calling the various legal aid organizations in Michigan, and explaining your situation. Many of them won’t handle criminal cases, but many of them do handle family cases, and at the heart of this case your family is at risk. And even if they can’t help you, they may be able to suggest someone who can. There is a list of those organizations here.
What will be critical to get across to the judge is that you have never done anything like this before (you haven’t, have you?), that you realize that burning the letters was a dumb thing to do but that even in that moment you were careful to burn them away from anything which could catch fire or where it could be a danger, and that you immediately apologized, in writing and in person.
The judge will probably be concerned about your impulse control, and how it could affect others, including your children. It may be a good idea to see a counsellor about these issues, and have them come to court with you to support that you are a stable person, that you sought their assistance in dealing with your issues with your boyfriend, and that you are not a danger to your children or to anyone else.
If you have an attorney with you, and with the above actions, you should be able to get the judge to agree to community service or some other non-jail penalty. However, you must plan for the worst, and in advance make alternate arrangements for your children, so that if you do end up having to spend some time in jail, you can tell the judge that you have made arrangements for your children to stay with another family member (ideally).
If you don’t have a lawyer with you, the odds of your going to jail are much higher. Again, do whatever you can to retain an attorney. You may not qualify for a public defender, but you very well may qualify for reduced-fee legal aid. In the very worst case scenario, start consulting with local criminal lawyers; this is a really minor case relatively speaking for them, and so it shouldn’t be too expensive.
All this said, your appearance on December 5th is a pretrial, so unless Michigan law is very unusual, the odds of you going to jail on December 5th are very unlikely; that’s what the trial is for – to decide what should be done.
Don’t let the fact that it is a weekend discourage you. Many offices are open on Saturdays, and for now you only need to find a lawyer to appear at your pretrial hearing with you; after that you can figure out what to do next.