Anyone who has taken middle school civics, or who has ever seen a cop show on TV, knows the 6th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees those who are accused of a crime have the right to be represented by a lawyer in all critical phases of their criminal case. It’s one of the basic principles of the American justice system.
If a citizen of Pensacola, Milton, Okaloosa County or Walton County is charged with a crime but doesn’t have the resources to hire a private attorney, they will most likely need to use the services of the Public Defender’s Office
Often people are confused about whether Public Defenders in Florida, who represent indigent people, are in fact lawyers. They are definitely lawyers. They passed the Bar examination like the rest of us and many of them are damn fine lawyers.
To be represented by a Public Defender in Pensacola and elsewhere in Florida, a person must complete an “affidavit of indigency.” This is a sworn document that takes into account income and assets, such as motor vehicles, money in the bank, real property owned, etc., as well as liabilities such as living expenses, whether the person has dependents and the like. You must fall within certain financial benchmarks in order qualify for a public defender and that benchmark must show that you have little or no discretionary income. To see a typical affidavit of indigency please click here.
Keep in mind that services from the Public Defender’s office is not entirely free. A $50 application fee is charged for filing out the affidavit of indigency regardless of the clients’ ability to pay the $50. It’s generally imposed when the case is resolved.
Under Florida law a person’s income must be equal to or less than 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. Click here for the poverty guidelines. These guidelines are uniform throughout Florida.
However, if you’re parents are wealthy or financially solid but you have no personal resources with which to hire an attorney, you will still probably qualify for the public defender. So, you might have the option of either using a Public Defender or hiring a private attorney. There are several factors to consider in that situation.
If you choose to use a Public Defender, most of the time you’re not going to have a great deal of contact with your attorney (Some Public Defenders do consult their clients on a regular basis). That’s not because they’re lazy or “being paid by the State who also pays the prosecutors” — which is something many Public Defender clients complain of – it’s because of the number of cases they are assigned may be as high as 125 or more. However, merely because the Public Defender has a huge case load and is often busy in court, doesn’t mean they are not doing a good job for you or being ineffective in their representation. I think most good Public Defenders would like more time to develop and work on their cases. The huge caseloads are a disadvantage of having the Public Defender’s Office represent you.
However, one benefit of having the Public Defender represent you is they work with the same prosecutor day in and day out. They should know how to effectively negotiate with that prosecutor whereas a private attorney may only have limited contact with a prosecutor. Public Defenders are also very familiar with the peculiarities of the judges in their division. On the other hand, many experienced private attorneys have the same advantage.
In some exceptional cases, even if a defendant’s family had resources to hire me, I have advised them that they may not want to hire a private attorney because there was so little chance that doing so would result in a different outcome than if they used a Public Defender.
For example, several years ago, there was a Judge in Escambia County who had a reputation for being an extremely harsh on defendants accused of violating probation. He would send most violators to prison. Sometimes I would explain to people in this situation that there might not be anything I could do for them that the Public Defender could do. Sometimes after I had this candid conversation with them they’d still hire me because they wanted to feel like they had done absolutely all they could do, and the felt more comfortable having an attorney they could communicate more frequently with.
When I was a public defender, I would sometimes see clients I had originally spoken with as their Public Defenders come to the courthouse with a private attorney who had a reputation as being ineffective in representing their clients. I felt sorry for them because, being of limited resources, they’d hired an attorney who would take their case for an extremely small fee but wouldn’t do everything possible for them.
Just like Public Defenders attorneys, not all private attorneys are “created equal” and some private attorneys may not be as effective as Public Defenders. If you hire a private attorney, make sure it’s one you sense is going to do everything within their power to obtain the best possible outcome for you.
One of the best ways to find an effective private attorney is to ask an attorney friend for a referral or a friend or family member who has used the private attorney before.
The primary point of this post is to let people know there are very effective Public Defenders and there are some that aren’t so effective; the same holds true of private attorneys. The problem is you don’t get to select your Public Defenders just like you can’t select the Judge for your case. Of course, if you have financial resources, you choose who your private lawyer is going to be.
I hope this blog has helped clear up a few issues about whether you might qualify for the Public Defenders, that Public Defenders are true lawyers in every sense of the word, that there are some excellent Public Defenders and some that aren’t so excellent and you don’t get to choose your Public Defender. However, if you are indigent but your family is willing to help you pay for private counsel, remember that not all private lawyers are created equal either.