Monday, January 30, 2012

Ultimate Showdown! Private Defense Attorneys vs. Public Defenders

Many shoppers out there believe they have two options in choosing an attorney to defend them in a criminal case.  1) Hiring their own private defense attorney, or 2) Choosing to go with the public defender provided by the state/county.  People believe this to be true because of the case Miranda vs. Arizona which states that every accused person has the right to an attorney.  If one cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for them.  It's that last sentence that gets a lot of people in trouble.

The general consensus among people unfamiliar with the legal system is that YOU get to decide whether or not you can afford a defense attorney.  This, as you may be realizing, is not the case.  Requirements vary depending on the state, county within the state, and type of crime you have been charged with, but in Minnesota, there are very strict income limits for people receiving free legal representation.  In other words, being able to afford an attorney is different than not wanting to pay for one.  Even if you don't make too much money, if you have assets you could liquidate (an extra vehicle, a boat, a cabin up north that you use for recreation, your first born child), the courts are well within their rights to ask you to liquidate them before they will offer you free legal services.  So, most people charged with crimes do not qualify for public defenders.  This leaves you with two options: 1) Hire your own lawyer, or 2) represent yourself pro se.  I would NEVER recommend representing yourself in any case that could carry with it significant fines or jail time.  The average citizen, as bright as he or she may be, simply is not equipped to deal with all the ins and outs of criminal defense.  They don't make us lawyers go to law school for three years before we can even sit for the bar for no reason.  Practicing law is tough and, in most cases, should be left to the professionals.  You wouldn't perform your own heart surgery.  You shouldn't defend your own criminal cases, either.

So, now you know that you likely don't qualify for public defender services.  But what if you do?  What if you have been struck down by the economy, are having a tough time making ends meet, and got mixed up in something for which you are being charged with a crime.  Should you go with the public defender if you qualify for one?  I know if I recommend "no," that may ring a bit hollow, seeing as BDH Law Office is a for-profit private law firm that benefits from people deciding not to employ a public defender.  However, I truly do believe that if you can scratch up enough money to pay for a private attorney, whether it be by borrowing from friends or family, or even asking from donations from people from your local church, it will be worth it for you in the end.

I would never disparage the work that public defenders do.  Public defenders are one of the reasons the legal system works.  They often work for much less than they are worth and work too hard for what they are paid. They don't get to choose their clients -- they care chosen for them.  They do an admirable job considering the circumstances under which they are required to operate.  If it wasn't for public defenders, innocent people would be sent to jail FAR more frequently.  The problem with accepting a public defender to defend your case is that the system is broken.  Funding for PD's has gone down significantly over the years and there simply aren't enough public defenders to handle the case load they are burdened with.  This lack of time, resources, and flexibility make juggling the workload very difficult for most PD's.  They put in every bit as much effort as a private attorney, but their time is simply stretched too thin for them to give every client they have the attention they deserve.  This often can lead to missed details, delays in your trial (if indeed your case goes to trial), and a weaker relationship between you and your attorney.

Private attorneys have the ability to limit their case load to a number of clients they are comfortable with.  If they don't have room, they often will refer you to an attorney who might.  You are paying for the services of a private attorney, unlike with a public defender, but you get a lot for your money.  You get someone who will put in the necessary time to make sure all the "i's" are dotted and "t's" crossed regarding your defense.  While there are obvious benefits to a public defender settling a case just to get it over with (lessening their caseload, helping their client end the proceedings quickly, creating more time for other clients), private attorneys need to be successful to continue to get clients.  The last thing any Minnesota criminal defense lawyer wants to do is get a reputation as someone who pleads out every case they handle.  A lawyer who recommends accepting a plea all the time isn't an attorney who seems willing to go to war for you.  You need a lawyer who will help you find the best possible outcome for your case and then fight to get it.  If your attorney feels the best you can do is accept a plea offered up by the prosecution, then so be it.  What you don't want is an attorney who is suggesting a plea because they don't have time to handle your case properly.

If you've been charged with a crime, be it a felony, misdemeanor, or DWI, it's important to have legal representation.  If you really cannot afford an attorney, then it's certainly better to work with a public defender to make sure you have a competent, experienced attorney on your side.  However, even if you do qualify to use a public defender, if you think you can make it work financially, hiring a private Minnesota criminal defense attorney is going to give you the piece of mind that you get from knowing someone is willing to battle for your rights.

As always, none of the proceeding is intended to act as legal advice in any way.  If you have been charged with a crime or fear that you may be charged with one soon, please contact a Minnesota criminal defense lawyer immediately to set yourself up with the best possible opportunity to succeed in your defense.

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