Broke and in big trouble? You may be entitled to have the judge appoint a Public Defender to help you if you are charged with a misdemeanor or felony.
|When a Public Defender is appointed for a defendant, it is usually a great value. The Public Defender’s help is free or nearly free, and most Public Defenders are excellent Attorneys who know the court well. But there are some limitations to having and getting a Public Defender. |
Here is how the court appoints Public Defenders to a criminal case.
What Is a Public Defender?
In a land far far away, a long, long time ago, a great Supreme Court decision ruled that all criminal defendants have a right to a “competent defense” which means attorneys help. Now, anyone charged with a misdemeanor or felony crime has the right to an attorney and if the person cannot afford to hire a private Attorney, the law requires that the court appoint one to help the defendant at the public’s expense. When the Court appoints an attorney to help a broke defendant, they are called “Public Defenders”.
Public Defenders are real Attorneys, and are generally very good at what they do. I spent three years with the Santa Cruz County Public Defenders office my self, and can say they do consistently provide great legal work and fight to protect rights. Those defense daemons are in court everyday helping defendants in trouble, getting evidence suppressed, and they usually know the ins and outs of each courtroom, each judge, and every prosecutor.
Every county has its own Public Defers Office, or a contract with a private law firm to do the assigned work. Sometimes it is a division of the county, as in Santa Clara County. In other counties, such as Santa Cruz, the county has a contract with a law firm to provide Public Defender Services. In Riverside, the court just appoints private attorneys from an approved panel. Most of the time, the offices of the Public Defender are at or near the courthouse.
California Government Code Sections 27700-27709 require a county’s public defender to provide legal representation for indigent persons in certain circumstances. These California statutes are really just a restatement of the requirements the US Supreme Court set for 5th Amendment Rights in the famous 1963 case of Giddeon vs. Wainright. And in most jurisdictions, the Public Defender heads the county law office and Deputy Public Defender Attorneys which performs this task.
A person charged with a crime is a potential client, but they cannot just walk into the office and ask for a Public Defender’s help. A defendant must first get the Judge in their case to appoint the Office of the Public Defender to the case after a showing that the defendant cannot hire his or her own private Attorney.
How To Get A Public Defender
To get a Public Defender Attorney assigned, a defendant must appear in court first, and request one after the judge calls their case. The request can be made orally in court at any time, or on a local court form they use for a written request from the defendant. Both methods work.
Once the request is made, the judge is required to find out if the defendant is truly broke, and whether or not they can afford a private Attorney. In short, the court will check to see if the defendant qualifies for a public defender. Technically, a defendant must be “indigent” before a Public Defender can be appointed. The definition of “indigent” in this context varies from courtroom to courtroom.
Every county handles the financial qualifications for a Public Defender assignment differently, and there is no single rule on how much you can earn or have before you do not qualify for the Public Defender. In some counties, if you are unemployed, you qualify. In others, the requirements are stricter, and you must have no property to sell, no family to help, and no job.In some counties, the qualification procedure is relatively simple. The defendant, once in court, makes a request, and the judge will ask several questions with the defendant under an oath to tell the truth.
The questions will include whether or not the defendant is employed, owns their own house and car, etc. Thereafter, the judge just makes a decision whether or not the defendant can come up with the money for a private Attorney.
In most counties, employment is enough to disqualify a defendant. The court expects the cost of an attorney hurt.
If the judge decides to appoint the Public Defender, the assignment is made immediately in open court. One of the Deputy Public Defenders in the courtroom take the case file and begin with an immediate, hallway consult with the new client.
In other courts, or on felony cases, the process is more complicated. In some courts, the defendant must fill out an application form to see if they meet the financial qualifications. Then they may have to return at a later date to get their public defender assignment.
But no matter what court a defendant is in, the process is basically this: the defendant must go to court, make a request for a Public Defender, and then provide evidence that they qualify for a Public Defender because they cannot afford to hire a private Attorney.
For this reason, if you are going to attend a first court date and want a public defender, you may wish to bring documentation of your financial situation with you. Being prepared may help you avoid extra, unnecessary court dates to provide financial documents.
What sort of documents may help a defendant get a public defender appointment? Examples: proof of disability, proof of unemployment, proof of child support payments, etc.
Some Public Defenders Offices will answer simple questions from a potential client in advance of a court date, but generally they do not give detailed advice before being appointed. Contacting the public defender’s office prior to your court date and asking to apply in advance may help you get information on what you need to collect.
Most county Public Defenders do have web sites with good information, with one of the best being the Los Angeles County Public Defenders Office.
While Public Defenders are a great value and help to an indigent defendant, they do have limitations.
Some courts will charge a defendant for the Public Defenders worth according to what they can afford (as determined by the court). In some cases, this charge can range from $100, to $10,000, based upon the defendant’s ability to pay.
Public Defenders are also restricted to helping only on the case the court appoints them for, so if a defendant have multiple cases in different courts, several Public Defenders may be needed, instead of one private attorney. And generally, Public Defenders will not help with DMV problems or hearings. In DUI cases, this is a major limitation of the Public Defender’s services.
For Defendants without outstanding warrants, Public Defenders present a problem because they cannot be appointed until the defendant appears in court. This means the defendant must first be arrested, or get their own court date before getting help.
Usually, if a court denies the appointment of a Public Defender because the judge rules the defendant can afford to hire an Attorney, the court will give the defendant time to shop for a private Attorney. Dont be afraid to ask for more time if you need it to find a private attorney or to get the money to hire the Defense Attorney that you want.
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