Criminal Law

Working with a Public Defender or Court-Appointed Attorney

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If you've been accused of a crime, the U.S. Constitution guarantees you the right to talk to an attorney. If you can't afford to hire a lawyer, you can ask the judge to appoint one at little or no cost to you.

Court-appointed attorneys work to protect your legal rights throughout the criminal court process. You can help your defense by knowing what to expect and how to interact with your court-appointed lawyer.

Requesting Legal Representation

You must ask the judge for a court-appointed lawyer if you want one, and you must meet certain criteria to qualify. The crime you are charged with must be serious enough to put you in jail if you are found guilty. You must also show that you don't have enough money to hire a lawyer on your own. Be prepared to tell the court about your income, expenses, and family obligations.

Court-Appointed Lawyers

Public defenders and court-appointed lawyers are law school graduates who are licensed to practice law in your area and the appropriate court system. Public defenders work full-time for the county or state government. If the office of the public defender can't take your case, the judge may assign a private attorney from the local community to represent you.

What a Court-Appointed Lawyer Does

Your court-appointed attorney's role is to protect your legal rights during questioning, line-ups, meetings, and hearings. If the case goes to trial, the lawyer files documents, interviews witnesses, investigates the facts, and prepares you for the trial. During trial, the lawyer will speak to the judge or jury, question witnesses and present evidence. If you are offered a plea deal, the lawyer may offer advice but, ultimately, the final decision is yours.

Working With Your Court-Appointed Lawyer

You can help with your defense in several ways. If you are not in jail, stay in touch with your court-appointed lawyer and return calls promptly. Provide a list of witnesses and their contact information. Write up a timeline of the events leading up to the crime of which you're accused, and make a drawing of the crime scene. Ask the lawyer plenty of questions about what could happen in your case.

Remember that the conversations you have with your lawyer are almost always confidential. However, there are certain types of information that a lawyer is legally required to disclose so listen for cues when answering questions.

Changing Lawyers

If you are concerned about your lawyer's experience or competency, you may ask the judge to assign a different lawyer. The judge's decision will depend on the reason for your request and the timing. It would be difficult to bring in a new lawyer a week before the trial starts, for example, but the judge might agree if your attorney hasn't done a good job of preparing your case.

A Criminal Lawyer Can Help

The law surrounding working with a court-appointed attorney when you are accused of a crime is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a criminal lawyer.

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