The right to be represented by an attorney in a criminal matter, as conveyed by the Sixth Amendment, is a cornerstone of American law. This right exists regardless of your ability to afford counsel. In those situations when you cannot afford an attorney, the state can assign a public defender to your case. While this attorney is paid by the government, their primary objective is to protect your legal rights and defend you against any criminal charges.
How Can I Get a Public Defender?
There are two ways to get the help of a public defender in your criminal trial. The path you take can depend on whether or not you can afford whatever bond is set in your case. Bond is essentially a payment made to the court as collateral for your release. You can pay the bond yourself or get the assistance of a local bail bondsman. The amount is repaid to you (or your bondsman) when you show up in court for your scheduled court date.
Bond is not always set in a criminal matter. If a judge does not have reason to believe that you’re unlikely to show up for court, they may release you on your own recognizance. If there is a question about whether or not you’ll show up, or if your crime was particularly serious, a judge may order you to post bond before you can be released.
Defendants Who Can’t Afford Bail
If you do not have the ability to post bond in your case the court will likely assign a public defender to your case. Since you cannot afford bail, it is also unlikely that you will be able to cover the cost of an attorney on your own. The court will step in and simply assign a public defender to represent you in the criminal matter at hand.
Defendants Who Can Afford Bail
Does the ability to post bail and secure your release from jail automatically mean that you’ll be disqualified from getting the help of a public defender? No. However, the court will not assign an attorney to your case until you’ve proven that you cannot afford to hire an attorney on your own.
Proving Financial Need
You have the right to ask a judge to assign a public defender to your case. While each court will have slightly different procedures for making this request, the analysis of whether or not a public defender is appropriate will be the same.
In your request for a public defender you must complete a financial disclosure. This form will detail information about your financial situation, including:
- Wages and income
- Assets and savings
- Necessary living expenses, and
- Court-ordered financial obligations (e.g., child support, alimony)
This disclosure may also require you to provide information about any bankruptcy or financially-relevant legal proceedings in your past. A judge will analyze the information you provide and determine whether or not you can afford to hire an attorney. This assessment will vary based on the average cost of an attorney in your specific geographic location.
If the court believes that you can’t afford an attorney one will be appointed to your case. If the court does not believe that you demonstrate the financial need for a public defender, it will decline your request. You always have the option to appeal a denied request for counsel.