What is a Public Defender? Here is what you need to know.

The right for the poor in the United States to have a Defense Attorney’s help when charged with a crime developed over time. There is a famous movie about it called Gideon’s Trumpet. If you want details about the creation of the right, get the movie.

If you don’t have the movie, we can sum up the right to a Public Defender for Indigent Defendants as follows:

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the US Supreme Court ruled that the language of the United States Constitution guarantees every person charged with a serious crime the right to a Defense Attorney’s help and representation at trial.

It seems to make sense. After all, the poor criminal defendants should not be at a disadvantage in the American criminal justice system just because they do not have money to hire a Defense Attorney who could actually help. The government gets to use a highly paid prosecutor, shouldn’t the Defendant have a Defense Attorney to explain the law, explain the process, review and verify the evidence, argue coherently, and fight back?

The United States Supreme Court later clarified that this right required the government to provide a Criminal Defense Attorney, at the public’s expense, to defendants who could not afford to hire a private Defense Attorney.

Eventually – and this is an interesting reflection on American Society – the court ruled that an Appointed Defense Attorney had to be “competent” and actually stay awake during a trial.


The theory behind this right is that an everyday person accused of a crime has no chance against a skilled and highly trained prosecutor without a defense Attorney to ensure the process is fair, and the evidence reliable.

Yes, somewhere in history, our ancestors learned that prosecutors are not always right, honest and fair. The right to an Attorney at public expense for the poor is a uniquely American counter balance to that problem.

The right to an Attorney for the poor has well defined details in today’s world.  Today in most states, a Defendant has a right to a court appointed defense Attorney if:

1) charged with a misdemeanor or felony (includes DUI charges, but not traffic infractions); and

2) qualify as “indigent” under the current guidelines set by the county or local where the case is being heard.

When a Defendant meets these qualifications, the court must appoint a Defense Attorney at little or no cost to help the Defendant.

These Court Appointed Defense Attorneys for the Poor are called “Public Defenders” and are often misunderstood.

Are Public Defenders Real Defense Attorneys?

You bet. In most counties, there is a separate county division called the Office of the Public Defender, which is the collection of Attorneys hired by the county to act as the court appointed defense counsel for the poor or “indigent”. These attorneys are known as “Public Defenders”.

All Public Defenders are licensed by the State Bar of their state to practice criminal defense law.  In fact, often, they are the best criminal defense trial attorneys around. This is due to the fact that they work every courtroom every day, they how their judges are likely to rule, and they know what to expect from the local juries.

It is true that many young lawyers start their trial careers with a Public Defenders Office, but the reason for this is more often due to the excellent training available to new Public Defenders, than to the new commers’ inability to get a higher paying job.

Are Public Defenders Available To Everyone Who Asks for One?

No. You must first apply for a Public Defender in court and then qualify as “indigent” under the county’s rules. Generally, if an accused, or the family of the accused, can come up with the money for a private attorney, the accused will not qualify for a public defender. An unwillingness to borrow money for an Attorney, or to sell an asset such as a car does not make one “indigent”.  Generally the courts require that a defendant must have no access to resources for a private Attorney before the qualify for a Public Defender.

Are Public Defenders Free?

No. Almost all California Counties now charge a minimum fee for use of a Public Defender. And many counties now will charge the accused for the services of the public defender on a sliding scale based upon a person’s income, and the court will enforce payment of the bill.

Serious penalties apply to those who try to mislead the court about their ability to pay for a public defender.

How Do You Apply For a Public Defender?

You must appear in court on your assigned court day, and inform the judge that you want to request the help of a public defender. This problem is one giant disadvantage for people accused of Driving under the influence (Vehicle Code section 23152) because it means they do not get help prior to their court date.  And in DUI cases, there is a lot to do prior to a court date.  For example, a person arrested for a DUI offense in CA only has 10 days to schedule a DUI hearing to protect their drivers license, and a Public Defender’s help comes too late for that deadline.  And worse yet for the DUI defendant, the Public Defender will not help with DMV hearings at all.

Practice Tips:

In most traffic citation cases, a Public Defender is not available, because the Defendant is not charged with a misdemeanor or more serious crime.

Public Defenders have limitations.

Public Defenders are generally a great value for those who qualify.  However, they do have limitations that private Attorneys do not have.

One of the downsides of requesting a Public Defender is that you have to go to court to request one, and you may not get one you like.  In most misdemeanor cases, a private defense attorney can go to court for you, and you can always hire the one that works best with you.

Public Defenders are also generally assigned to deal with one case for a Defendant.  If the Defendant has several cases in different courts, a different Attorney may be appointed on each, making coordinating the defenses difficult.

Public Defenders will not assist with issues outside of the courtroom, such as DMV hearings (important in DUI cases), and generally will not talk to defendants or provide consultations prior to being appointed in court.  For defendants with outstanding warrants, this means it is unlikely that a Public Defender can help before getting arrested on the warrant.

A person who wishes to discuss a case with a Public Defender prior to appearing in court should call the Public Defenders Office in their county to see if a pre court consultations is possible.

My advice if you are not sure if you qualify for a public defender?  Shop around for a private attorney first, and find out if they can help more, and faster than a public defender. And at what cost? There is no harm in shopping.

Defendants who need more time before a misdemeanor arraignment to shop for an attorney can often have such a request granted by the judge.


About Attorney Christopher Dort

Public Interest Attorney. CA State Bar #196832. Licensed to practice law in California 1998, and then the US Federal District Court in 2000. Civil Litigation Trial Attorney (Insurance Defense Firms) 2000-2003. Private practice 2003 - present. First Solo Criminal Jury Trial 1998 (Santa Cruz County). First Civil Jury Trial 2002 (Orange County). Santa Cruz County Public Defenders Office 1996-1999 (law clerk). BA in Politics from UC Santa Cruz, 1995. JD, University of California, Hastings, 1998.
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