How to Obtain a Court-Appointed Defense Lawyer
If you're facing criminal charges and are unable to afford a private defense attorney, you may qualify for a court-appointed lawyer. After all, one of the foundations of our legal system is that every criminal defendant has the right to legal representation. This is best understood by listening to the Miranda warning that police must provide to every person upon an arrest:
You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed.
Requesting a Court-Appointed Lawyer
It might seem crazy how much a private criminal defense attorney can charge, with hourly rates sometimes as high as $300-$600. If you're unable to afford a private criminal defense attorney, you may be able to obtain a court-appointed lawyer to represent you. Generally, the lawyer will work at the government's expense. In order to obtain a court-appointed lawyer in your case, you're generally required to:
The first time you're able to request a court-appointed lawyer will be the first time you go in front of a judge after your arrest, known as your arraignment. You either arrive to the arraignment on your own (if you were able to post bail), or escorted by the sheriff's department of your county if you weren't able to post bail.
When the judge calls your case for the arraignment, the first question will be whether or not you're represented by an attorney and, if not, whether you want one appointed to your case. If so, the judge could simply appoint an attorney already present in court to assist with the remainder of your arraignment. However, this lawyer normally will not be the same lawyer appointed to you for the duration of your case, which can happen after your arraignment. Some courts will postpone the arraignment itself until an attorney is appointed for the duration of your case and others could delay all hearings until your financial situation can be investigated to determine whether you qualify for a court-appointed lawyer.
Local Rules and Partial Indigency
Each state, and sometimes each county, has rules for determining how to qualify for court-appointed counsel. These rules often have some flexibility to account for the seriousness of the alleged crime or the probable length of the trial. So, even if you make a decent wage and could hire a private attorney to work on a short case, a judge may determine that you qualify for a court-appointed lawyer if the charges against you are more serious or if it appears that your trial may take some time.
Lastly, if you earn income, but it's not high enough to hire a private attorney and not low enough to qualify you for a court-appointed lawyer, the judge may provide you with "partial indigency." Under this procedure, you're represented by court-appointed counsel, but you're also required to reimburse the state for a portion of your costs of representation.
Are Court-Appointed Lawyers Any Good?
When answering this question, remember that in most situations, any legal representation in a criminal case is better than none. However, this is not to say that a court-appointed lawyer is little better than nothing. In fact, many public defenders and court-appointed lawyers are some of the best legal minds in the world. Public defenders often have more courtroom time and experience than many private defense lawyers twice their age. Indeed, public defenders have been on the defense side of many of the most prestigious cases in our country's history.
However, the time and effort that court-appointed lawyers can spend on their cases has declined in recent years with reduced government funding and higher caseloads. Indeed, in some places it has become so bad that public defenders only meet their clients for the first time in the court's anteroom before trial starts.
Get Legal Help with Your Questions About Court-Appointed Attorneys
As you can see, there are positive and negative aspects of obtaining a court-appointed defense lawyer, just as there are for hiring a private defense lawyer. However, if you're facing criminal charges, you may want to contact a local criminal defense attorney to obtain an experienced and informed evaluation of your case.