As defense attorneys we know how stressful finding out that you are being charged with a crime can be. You have a limited time to hire good legal representation to start working on your case. A lot of people do not know if they have the finances to be able to afford a private attorney and should instead accept a court-appointed one (also known as “public defender”). Others feel that they should break into their assets and savings to hire a private lawyer because public defenders do not get the same results.

At Tarlton Polk we aim to give you as honest advice on this as possible. While we are a private criminal defense law firm, we do get hired to take on some complicated court-appointed cases for low-income defendants. In this article we will break down some of the concerns and dilemmas people have when it comes to hiring a private attorney or accepting a court-appointed one.

an attorney talking to his client about a plea bargain

Qualifying for a Public Defender

Before discussing the differences between hiring a private attorney or a court-appointed one, we should first discuss if you’re eligible for a court-appointed attorney in the first place. This may come as a surprise, but while sixth amendment to the U.S constitution entitles everybody to a fair trial, it does not actually guarantee that you will be provided with an attorney. The process of assigning people public defenders only came about after a 1963 Supreme Court case, Gideon v. Wainwright, which established that low-income defendants have a right to free legal representation. This ruling applies to felony or misdemeanor case as well as juvenile delinquency proceedings that could result in imprisonment.

Determining whether you qualify is not a very straightforward process and depends heavily on the court. In general, you may be expected to do some of the following:

  • Provide proof of income.
  • Provide proof of assets, debts, and expenses.
  • Search for private lawyers in your area for cost quotes.

Some courts may just take you at your word, especially if it appears obvious (for example, homeless individuals lacking documents). 

Myths and Truths About Public Defenders

As we stated earlier, we want to give you a balanced picture of what the advantages and disadvantages of a public defender and private attorney are. We are aware that there are many myths that go around about both options, so we want to tackle this issue by addressing what is and is not true to give you an honest picture.

Public Defenders are not on Your Side — Myth

A lot of people, especially those from communities regularly targeted by law-enforcement, believe that public defenders are really just working for the prosecution and doing the government’s bidding. We have seen the unfortunate results of this myth as low-income defendants decided to fire their public defenders and tackle their case alone, which only produces worse outcomes. 

While it is true that public defenders are part of the same system and tend to know the prosecutors and judges well, this does not mean that they are serving their interests by any means. They are legally obligated to be devoted to protecting your rights, and that obligation is to our very constitution, which is far more powerful than any lower court. Even more importantly, the courts do want their trials to be fair to avoid any further lawsuits or motions due to unfair conditions. It really is in everybody’s best interest that you receive decent representation.

Public Defenders are Overworked — Truth

While the caseloads for public defenders will differ across courts due to many factors such as lawyers available and cases pending, it is typical for public defenders to handle very large caseloads. This means they will not have the same amount of time to spend on your case that a private attorney would. This couples with the common issue that many of them are not paid as much as private attorneys to work on these cases too. Even though they will make an honest effort to give you fair representation, they are more prone to make mistakes or overlook details, especially in cases that are more complicated. 

Public Defenders are Always Inexperienced — Myth

You may have been told that being a public defender is a job for recent law graduates, or people who simply do not have the skills to make it as a private attorney. This is not really the case, as there are many public servants who have decades of experience working on such cases and are well-versed in the law and courts.

Additionally, it is possible for the government to hire a private attorney to be appointed to low-income, or “indigent“, defendants, acting as their public defender. This usually happens for more complex cases or after a defendant requests a new defendant on account of inadequate representation, but it does mean it is possible to have a lawyer with more time for your case. In fact, the attorneys at Tarlton Polk have all served in such capacity for a variety of cases.

Public Defenders Plead Out Cases — Truth

While private lawyers such as ourselves will tell you that we are ready to take your case to trial to fight for the best possible results, public defenders may opt for a safer and simpler approach. This goes back to the earlier topic of “working for the other side”, but in a positive way, as their relationships with prosecutors can help get a plea agreement through.

The negative side to this is that public defenders tend to have less trial prowess, or just do not feel that they have reviewed your case with enough care to represent it positively in trial. Also, with their huge caseloads, plea agreements are easier to get the cases over with, so they have a reason to favor them.

Advantanges of a Private Attorney

Private lawyers get to choose their caseload carefully, and give themselves more time to work on each case and serve clients to their utmost ability. When discussing the downsides to a private attorney, the only thing that really comes up is that you have to pay for the services. While nothing about criminal charges may seem ideal, you have to ask yourself if the cost outweighs the loss of freedom and quality of life a criminal conviction could bring. The advantages of a private attorney, on the other hand, are that you’ll have a much greater chance of getting the case dismissed, or having charges seriously reduced.

As private defense lawyers, it isn’t just trial preparation that we work on to serve our clients best. Our goal is to give them enough time to build honesty and trust in our relationship, and for clients to understand what is going on and be at as much ease as they possibly can. We also aim to help clients with all the secondary elements of criminal cases and trials, such as guidance on civil law aspects, as well as potential for post-conviction motions or appeals.

Overall, while we do not want to disparage public defenders, and understand that cost is a concern, we do recommend you explore your options and do what you can to hire a private attorney. If you are facing any kind of criminal charge, please reach out to us to discuss your case. We can go over many of your concerns in our consultation, including potential criminal penalties you may face with our without us, costs, and any other related issues you are facing.

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