A public defender, sometimes called a court-appointed attorney, is a licensed lawyer assigned to a criminal case by the court. This type of criminal defense lawyer has graduated from law school and passed the bar exam in the state in which he or she practices law, just like any other attorney.
A public defender is mentioned whenever a police officer reads a suspect his or her Miranda rights. The officer is required to say the following: "If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you before questioning..." This is a right granted by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
When charged with any felony or misdemeanor that might result in jail time, defendants are entitled to have attorneys represent them during questioning. In many cases, those arrested can't afford to hire private attorneys to represent them.
No matter how serious a suspect's court record may be, he or she is still entitled to legal representation. So, the state appoints public defenders for those defendants.
The public defender is qualified to handle almost any felony and can represent defendants at arraignments, trials, sentencing, and appeals. Except in rare situations, public defenders work only on criminal cases. They assist many people with serious jail records in difficult cases, and they usually obtain satisfactory results for defendants.
Public defenders handle cases involving serious misdemeanors such as DWI, DUI, felonies such as robbery, burglary, murder, assault, theft, rape, and many other crimes.
Before receiving assistance from public defenders, defendants are required to complete a sworn statement indicating they can't afford to hire paid attorneys or private criminal defense lawyers.
There are several advantages to having court-appointed defense attorneys. Since they handle so many cases in the same courts, public defenders usually have some influence with those courts when it comes to negotiating favorable plea agreements. And, a public defender can ask the court to pay for expert witness testimony at no cost to the defendant. In contrast, the court won't agree to pay for such fees when the defendant is working with a private defense attorney.
Like all experienced criminal defense lawyers, public defenders have plenty of experience working with the judges and prosecutors assigned to their cases. In contrast, private defense attorneys may be relatively inexperienced in working with a given judge or court. As a result, a public defender can often negotiate lower bail amounts and obtain better sentences for defendants.
Public defenders are available in every community. They can meet you in court or at the police station or jail. Use this directory to find the nearest public defender office.