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Found Not Guilty of a Crime in California, Your Public Defender Fees Are Waived

By George Khoury, Esq. on July 12, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

For criminal defendants found not guilty in California, the law just changed to make public defenders services free of charge. So long as a person is not convicted of a felony or misdemeanor, a court cannot order that individual to reimburse the public defender's office.

Before the change, a person who utilized the services of a public defender could be ordered to pay for those services regardless of the outcome. The old law required many low income, homeless, and other disadvantaged individuals to pay for a public defender even if they were falsely arrested.

The caveat to this new law is that accepting a plea bargain, which many criminal defendants accept to mitigate the risk of a trial, usually results in a conviction. The new California law only applies if a person is not convicted, and since most plea bargains result in a conviction, a defendant could still be faced with paying for their public defender's services.

While it might not be possible in every situation, to avoid a plea bargain resulting in a public defender bill, there are a few potential options:

  1. Request that the public defender fees be waived as part of the plea deal
  2. Do not accept a plea bargain that does not result in the dismissal of your case, such as a "pretrial diversion" deal.
  3. Do not accept a plea bargain to felony or misdemeanor charges. If charges can be reduced to infractions as part of the plea deal, only then will the new law prevent a court from ordering reimbursement against a convicted individual.

But I Thought Public Defenders Were Already Free ...

While the service of public defenders is provided without an upfront cost, in nearly every jurisdiction, not just California, courts will make defendants pay for the services they receive, if they are able. Under California law, this requires the court to hold a special hearing to investigate a defendant's ability to pay. A defendant who is unable to pay will not be ordered to pay, though a court can order that only a portion of the total be paid, and can also place liens on real property owned by the defendant.

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