Any time a person can be sentenced to active jail time, they have a right to have an attorney. The line has been heard countless times on tv shows, “You have the right to an attorney. If you can’t afford one, one will be appointed to you.” Who does an appointed attorney work for? Who pays for the appointed attorney? Why should I hire a private attorney for my criminal case if I can have one given to me?
These are all great questions, lets start with who does an appointed attorney work for?
In North Carolina there are Public Defenders and court appointed contract attorneys. A Public Defender’s Office is an office where attorneys are employed by the State to represent people who cannot afford an attorney. A contracted court appointed attorney acts somewhat like Public Defenders. They are typically found in smaller counties that don’t have a Public Defenders office. Their firm has an agreement with the State that they will resolve a specific number of cases every year. Based on the agreed upon workload, the State then pays the contracted attorney a set dollar amount each month. At the end of the year, if the contract attorney has not resolved a specific number of cases, they have to pay back some of the money.
Whether a Public Defender or contractor is assigned, their job is to advocate for you. They are supposed to have the client’s best interest at heart. Both are required to protect the information a client provides them the same way I would. The Public Defender cannot work with the government to ensure you get locked up or deliberately allow the prosecutor to win.
Who pays for a Public Defender?
Despite what most people think, the Defendant does most of the time. In North Carolina, when a Defendant pleads guilty or is convicted, the judge asks the Public Defender or contract attorney how much time they spent working on the case. Based on the attorney’s skill, experience, and severity of the case, the judge imposes a statutorily determined hourly fee for the time spent working on the case. A Defendant also has to pay an application fee, just for applying for an attorney. A Defendant may not have to front the money for an attorney, but if they are found guilty or take a plea, they will end up paying for the appointed attorney.
Why should you hire a private attorney versus a Public Defender?
Pretend you are walking into a courtroom, how many Defendants have Public Defenders versus private attorney’s? This is a major indication of the appointed attorney’s workload and the amount of time they can legitimately spend working on your case. This isn’t a knock at the Public Defender’s office, but Wake County has approximately 30 Public Defenders, yet handles 16,000 cases. If every Public Defender had the exact same number of cases, each one has roughly 533 cases. No Public Defender is handling 533 felony cases at a time. This means if the Defendant has a misdemeanor case, the attorney probably handles 700 – 800 cases each year, if not more.
Think about who pays for a Public Defender -- eventually the Defendant does. Court appointed attorneys are exactly that, court appointed. Defendant’s don’t get to choose who they have representing them. They are mostly stuck with what they get. If you are going to pay for an attorney anyways, why not get to choose who you want?
Lastly, this pandemic is the perfect example of why a private attorney is better suited to take care of a Defendant. Attorneys are defined as essential workers, as it should be. Defendants have the right to have someone advocate for them. Dobson Law has remained open and committed to our clients. Clients who wanted to come in and see an attorney in person were able to do so. As their attorney, we visited clients that were in jail instead of leaving them in the dark.