Private Criminal Defense Attorneys, Court Appointed Attorneys and Self Representation

In criminal cases, if incarceration is a potential outcome of a criminal case, all defendants must be provided a court-appointed attorney.  Defendants, however, may elect to use a private criminal defense attorney or elect to represent themselves in criminal proceedings. However, the use of an attorney or lawyer provides numerous benefits to defendants, which at first may not be as obvious as they seem.  The benefits of using any attorney during your criminal case include:

  • Cooperating and negotiating with prosecuting officials, who may refuse to address defendants representing themselves
  • Promote pre-trial diversionary programs for defendants
  • Provides defendants with a comprehensive and objective view of the potential fallout and other aspects of their criminal charges and pending cases
  • Understanding, interpreting, and implementing defenses based on less than obvious court and other legal precedents per their legal experience and research
  • Informs defendants of the future fallout from a guilty plea, including civil liability, earning an income, strike legislation, and other stigmas against ex-convicts
  • Objectively present expert witnesses, contradicting statements made by prosecution witnesses, and even independently interview eyewitnesses and victims

How to Use Self-Representation in Criminal Cases

Overall, self-representation is typically highly unsuccessful in criminal cases, and in reality, a very small percentage of individuals actually elect to self-represent.  Defendants are allowed to request to represent themselves, however, a judge must determine that they are not legally competent based on factors such as age, educational background, English-speaking ability, and the seriousness of the charges faced.  Sometimes, individuals may elect to represent themselves, while retaining legal counsel, or “coaching”.  In cases of public defenders, a defendant’s best decision is to accept representation from a public defender, but remain active in their case, which may require requesting access to legal books and other court documents while on trial, even if incarcerated.  Self-representation, without any form of legal guidance or counsel is a bad strategy for a number of reasons, including:

  • Self-defendant’s anxiety and inability to present cases to a jury seemingly in an objective manner
  • Convictions are not a light matter for most crimes and may result in years of incarceration
  • Self-defendants with previous criminal records are viewed unfavorably by jurors
  • Self-defendants, unless otherwise trained, typically are not practicing or experienced in law
  • Self-defendants are not guaranteed, but typically granted, access to legal materials and books

How to Use Private Defense Lawyers in Criminal Cases

Private criminal defense attorneys often operate in a specific geographic location and serve the interests of private clients for strictly criminal matters.  In most cases, a practicing criminal defense attorney has held a public position in the government court system before turning to private practice.  Often, these attorneys work alone or in connection with a group of partners.  The problem with getting a private defense lawyer for most defendants, however, is their cost.  Most private defense attorneys require payment, or partial payment, upfront for their services, which may follow a number of billing schedules.  This factor is probably the foremost reason not every defendant utilizes a private criminal defense attorney.    If you can afford private defense representation, you now face several other hurdles, including finding the right private criminal defense attorney to defend your case.

Choosing the right criminal defense attorney is extremely stressful for defendants facing criminal charges, who virtually are putting their freedom in the hands of a stranger in many cases.  Additionally, cost becomes an issue in many defendants’ decision to work with a given private criminal defense attorney.  Some important questions to answer before electing to go with a given attorney should be posed, including:

  • Has the attorney defended against similar criminal charges as those you are facing?
  • When and where did this experience occur?
  • What were the outcomes of these cases?
  • How much time can a lawyer dedicate to your case, both personally and via their staff?
  • How communicative is the lawyer and willing to hear your input, suggestions, and concerns?
  • What is the individual strategy a given attorney has for defending your case?
  • Are there any reasons, events, or any other factors that may negatively influence or hamper an attorney’s ability to work exclusively in your best interest?

How Much Does a Criminal Defense Attorney Cost?

The cost of a criminal defense attorney greatly varies, depending on a litany of factors, including:

  • The nature and number of charges you are facing
  • The location of your case
  • The level of experience an attorney posses

There have been studies to assess the average cost of mounting a criminal defense, and according to one study done by Consumer Reports, the median cost was $1,500.  Before even selecting an attorney, defendants will want to assess that particular attorney’s method of tabulating fees.  One method attorney’s utilize is billable hours, which essential assign a negotiated pay rate per hour to your case that an attorney dedicates.  Additionally methods include case billing, which is a fixed amount charged per case according to the terms you and your attorney draw up before making the agreement.  Most attorneys will require a retainer fee, or money upfront, before they commence working on your case. Determining the cost, what services you can expect, and any other variable is carefully noted in your attorney-client agreement, which should be scrutinized before any agreement is made.

How to Use Court Appointed Lawyers in Criminal Cases

Not all criminal defendants are entitled to lawyers at government expense.  In fact, each state and municipality possesses individual laws pertaining to the qualifications to receive a public defense.  In most cases, a defendant must request a court-appointed legal defense and submit to a financial eligibility questionnaire to determine the financial feasibility of mounting a private defense.  The financial eligibility is based on the sole individual’s income, and the determination will not take into account your spouse or other family members’ financial status.  Additionally, the courts determine an individual to be partially indigent, which allows for partial reimbursement of legal defense costs at the conclusion of a trial typically at significantly reduced rates. 

Individuals should keep in mind that some states offer court appointed attorneys, while others offer free legal representation for qualified indigent defendants through a public defendant or indigent panel attorneys.  Many individuals may feel cheated when being represented by a public or court-appointed defender, but statistically speaking, private defense attorneys on a whole typically only produce marginally better conviction to dismissal rates.  Additionally, public defender’s often have extensive knowledge of the specific court system your case is being tried in, and may even have established personal connections with virtually every party present, aside from the jury, at your trial.  This can go a long way during plea bargaining negotiations and obtaining non-required permissions from the presiding judge. 

Defendants cannot select the public defender or court appointed attorney that represents them in most cases.  If a defendant feels their attorney is working against the case, or does not respond to the defendant’s requests, a defendant can request different counsel through Motion for Substitution of Attorney.  Typically, unless there exists concrete evidence of malpractice, bad faith and dealing, or a lack of communication caused by the public defender, judges frequently deny these motions.  Another option for defendants is to request their public defendant to motion for voluntary request for a substitution, which judges frequently approve.

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