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How to Get a Public Defender

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

Want to know how to get a public defender? It's a common question for those in the criminal justice system, especially if you've just been accused of a crime.

Public defenders exist to represent and defend in criminal court those persons who cannot afford a private defense attorney.

If you find yourself in need of legal representation after an arrest, follow these general steps to get a public defender:

1. Ask for a Public Defender at Arraignment.

Once arrested, you will either be given a notice to appear in court, or you will be held in a local jail cell until your arraignment.

In either case, you must appear at your arraignment court date, at which time you can ask the judge for a court-appointed public defender.

Depending on your state or county, you may be required to bring proof of your inability to pay for a private attorney to your arraignment. But in most cases -- especially if you are currently in custody -- simply requesting a public defender will move you on to the next step in the process.

2. Interview With the Public Defender's Office.

Many cities and counties (like San Francisco, for example) have their own dedicated public defender's offices. These offices employ full-time government lawyers who work exclusively to represent indigent criminal defendants for free.

After requesting a public defender at arraignment, you will typically be required to provide the public defender's office with proof of your poor financial situation or indigence.

Your eligibility for a public defender is determined on a case-by-case basis. Typically, it's determined by these factors:

  • Available income,
  • Severity of the charges, and
  • Availability of family or other support structures.

The lower your available assets and more severe your accused crime, the more likely you will be approved for a public defender.

3. Conflicts of Interest Check.

Once you've proven yourself eligible for free legal representation, then the public defender's office will likely conduct an intake interview in order to assign you to a specific attorney.

Since many public defenders handle literally hundreds of cases each year, it is important for the public defender's office to determine -- based on the intake interview or future conversations -- if representing you would present a conflict of interest.

Once a conflicts check has been completed, you will either be assigned to an attorney with the public defender's office or a specially designated "conflicts counsel" who will also represent you for free.

If, however, you don't qualify for a public defender and you need representation in your criminal case, there are other options available. Head to FindLaw's lawyer directory to find an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area.

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