The U.S. Constitution provides that you are entitled representation by an attorney if the state is trying to deprive you of your liberty. This means that a court may be required to appoint a lawyer to represent you for free -- or for a fee you can afford -- if the crime you are charged with carries a jail sentence.
Because most criminal defendants are unable to afford their own attorneys, many states have public defender's offices. Public defenders (P.D.s) are fully licensed lawyers whose sole job is to represent poor defendants in criminal cases. Because they appear daily in the same courts, P.D.s gain a lot of experience in a short period of time. And because they work daily with the same cast of characters, they learn the personalities (and prejudices) of the judges, prosecutors, and local law enforcement officers -- important information to know when assessing a case and conducting a trial.
In areas that don't have a public defender's office, the local government will often contract with private law firms to take cases for indigent defendants. Or, the courts will maintain a list of attorneys and appoint them on a rotating basis to represent people who can't afford to hire their own lawyers. most of the time, a defendant is making some amount of money, so the court will hold an informal hearing requesting financial information concerning the defendant's ability to pay. the Judge will utilize a formula and assess whether the defendant has the ability to pay back the public defender for their services on a sliding scale basis. If the defendant is deemed to have the ability to pay, the Judge usually imposes an attorney's fee in the amount determined by the court.
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In most criminal courts the arraignment is where you first appear before a judge and enter a plea of guilty or not guilty to the offense charged. Assuming you enter a plea of not guilty, which almost every defendant does at this early stage, the following steps also happen at the arraignment:
- the judge sets a date for the next procedural event in your case
- the judge considers any bail requests that you or the prosecutor make
- the judge appoints a lawyer for you, if appropriate, and
- the judge may ask you to "waive time" -- that is, give up your right to have the trial or other statutory proceedings occur within specified periods of time.
Most people can handle this proceeding without a lawyer. However, if you can get the court to appoint a lawyer for you without postponing the arraignment, or you are able to arrange for private representation before your arraignment, it's always better to have a lawyer.
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Recently arrested people should usually talk to a lawyer as soon as possible. Often, the most urgent priority is getting a lawyer to arrange a defendant's release and provide some information about what's to come in the days ahead.
If you have been represented by a criminal defense lawyer in the past, that is usually the lawyer to call -- assuming you were satisfied with his or her services. If you have no previous experience with criminal defense lawyers, you can look to the following sources for a referral:
- Lawyers you know. Most lawyers do civil (noncriminal) work, such as divorces, drafting wills, filing bankruptcies, or representing people hurt in accidents. If you know any attorneys that you trust, ask them to recommend a criminal defense lawyer. (Some lawyers who do civil work can also represent clients in criminal matters, at least for the limited purpose of arranging for release from jail following an arrest.)
- Family members or friends. Someone close to you may know of a criminal defense lawyer or may have time to look for one
- Referral services. Lawyer referral services are another source of information, but there is a wide variation in the quality of these types of services. Some lawyer referral services carefully screen attorneys and list only those attorneys with particular qualifications and a certain amount of past experience, while other services will list any attorney in good standing with the state bar who maintains liability insurance. Before you choose a lawyer referral service, ask what its qualifications are for including an attorney and how carefully lawyers are screened.
- Courthouses. You can visit a local courthouse and sit through a few criminal hearings. If a particular lawyer impresses you, ask for her card after the hearing is over, and then call for an appointment.
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Judges rarely grant a defendants request for change of a public defender or other court-appointed lawyer. Disagreements between government-paid lawyers and defendants over strategic decisions are common and rarely are cause for a change of counsel. However, if in a serious case a schism between a lawyer and a defendant is so severe that a professional relationship is impossible, a judge may grant a defendants request for new counsel. Incompetence of counsel is another possible basis of a change of counsel, but one that rarely arises.
On the other hand, defendants who hire their own attorneys have the right to fire them at any time, without court approval. A defendant doesn't have to show "good cause" or justify the firing. After firing a lawyer, a defendant can hire another lawyer or perhaps even represent herself. Of course, changing lawyers will probably be costly. In addition to paying the new lawyer, the defendant will have to pay the original lawyer whatever portion of the fee the original lawyer has earned.
Your right to change lawyers is limited by the prosecutor's right to keep cases moving on schedule. If you want to change attorneys on the eve of trial, for example, your new attorney is likely to agree to represent you only if the trial is delayed so the new attorney can prepare. The prosecutor may oppose the delay, possibly because witnesses won't be available to testify later on. In these circumstances, the judge is likely to deny your request to change lawyers.
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