If you're accused of a crime and your liberty is somehow threatened (for example, with potential jail time), you're entitled under the United States constitution to be represented by an attorney.
Get Legal Help Early
It's important to have a criminal defense lawyer to represent you as soon as possible in the process, ideally at arraignment. A criminal defense attorney can:
- Challenge probable cause for arrest
- Argue in favor of being released on your own recognizance or on very low bail
- Negotiate plea bargains with prosecutors
- Discuss the pros and cons of going to trial
- Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of pleading guilty
Getting a Public Defender Appointed
If you can't afford to hire a lawyer from the private legal community, the court can appoint a government-paid lawyer called a "public defender" to represent you.
In order to have a public defender, you'll have to convince the judge that you can't afford to hire an attorney on your own. The judge may ask you to fill out a form detailing your financial resources, assets, income and debts. You may also need to provide the court with documentation such as paystubs to prove your income level.
Standards for how much money you can make and still qualify for a public defender vary greatly from state to state, and sometimes from one court to another.
In rural areas and in courts with meager resources, there might not be public defenders on staff with the court to represent you. In that case, the court will usually appoint a private attorney at public expense, or assign a private attorney from a volunteer attorney list to represent you.
In some courts, judges allow for what's called "partial indigency" representation: you have the help of a public defender, but are expected to reimburse the court some of the cost of representation after the trial.
If you give inaccurate information to the court in an effort to get a public defender appointed, you may be charged with the crime of falsifying information.
If the court decides you make too much money to qualify for a public defender, you'll want to immediately start looking for a private attorney to defend you.
Disadvantages of a Public Defender
One downside of being represented by a public defender is that these government-paid lawyers often have a huge overload of cases, and cannot devote a lot of time to any one case. As a result, you may have little or no access to your lawyer except during actual court hearings.
Public defenders also often lack office equipment and adequate research access, and can't afford to hire investigators to properly flesh out your case.
Public defenders are often young and inexperienced, and are "cutting their teeth" on high-volume misdemeanor cases such as DWIs.
A public defender also won't be able to assist you with related civil law or administrative matters (such as driver's license revocation hearings in a DWI case). You'll need to hire a separate attorney to help you with these concerns.
Advantages of a Public Defender
Public defenders work with the same judges and prosecutors day in and day out, and get to know their personal quirks, peeves and tolerances. They also see the same police officers testifying, and know who's likely to be a bad (and good) witness.
Public defenders usually work in "niched" areas of legal specialty, such as DWI or domestic violence defense. So they tend to be up-to-date on new law and legal theories in their area of specialty.
A public defender is likely to be very efficient at sizing up your case and presenting an acceptable plea bargain deal to the prosecutor and judge. As a result, you may be done with the criminal process and on with the rest of your life sooner than if you were represented by a private attorney.
Second Guessing Your Public Defender
Once you've been appointed a public defender, it's often very difficult, if not impossible, to have your attorney replaced with another public defender.
If you're having doubts about advice your public defender gives you, make an appointment for a "second opinion" consultation with a private criminal defense attorney. Most lawyers are willing to consult for a small fee, and you'll have the peace of mind of knowing your public defender is on track.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Do you have experience handling my type of case?
- What happens at the preliminary hearing? What comes next in the criminal process?
- What are my best options for resolving this case?