Avoiding Legal Trouble

Don't Like Your Public Defender? What You Need to Know

If you've been arrested, you've probably heard the line in the Miranda warning about having the right to a lawyer, and that a lawyer will be appointed for you if you can't afford one. Those appointed lawyers are called public defenders, and it's their job to represent anyone who can't afford a lawyer. But what happens if you don't like the public defender that your case is assigned to? More to the point, what happens if you believe that lawyer is not doing a good job for you? Take a look at what you need to do if you're unhappy with a public defender.

Talk to the Lawyer First

Before you take any official action, arrange a meeting with your public defender to discuss your concerns. Public defenders are typically hard workers who are committed to their jobs, but they're also often overloaded with work. In 2007, the Department of Justice found that 73% of county public defender offices had more than the maximum recommended number of cases.

That means that public defenders are busy and may not take the time to talk to you the way that a private attorney would. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that they aren't doing a good job for you; it may simply mean that they haven't effectively communicated what they're doing for your case. So before you act, give your attorney a chance to explain what actions they've taken or plan to take and what the status of your case is at the moment. You may find that things are better than you think.

Write to the Judge

If you're not satisfied after speaking with your public defender, you still can't just fire them. The judge for your case appointed your public defender, and only the judge can make a replacement. In most cases, you'll need more than personal dislike. You'll have to show that your current public defender violated your right to adequate representation.

Evidence that your attorney has violated your right to adequate representation can include things like missing appointments or filing dates or failing to notify you of hearing dates. If your attorney insists that you take a plea when you prefer not to or fails to keep you properly informed about your case, those are also violations. Ignoring evidence that's important to your case could also be a violation of your right to adequate representation.

What Happens If You're Still Not Happy After the Change?

One of the reasons that you want to be sure that you need a new attorney before you request one is that you'll probably only get one chance at a new attorney. In at least one case, a defendant was denied a second request to change his attorney, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision. So there is precedent for denying a change in attorneys.

If you find yourself in a situation where you're on your second public defender and still don't feel that you're being adequately represented, it may be time to look into private attorneys. You may be able to come up with some creative strategy to afford a local private attorney's fees. Consider borrowing money, organizing a fundraiser, or seek out a private criminal justice attorney who performs pro bono cases. 

Make decisions about hiring a lawyer or changing lawyers carefully. Your freedom depends on a strong defense, and that's too important to gamble with.