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Right to an Attorney Can Cost $92 an Hour

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on March 14, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

We've all heard the Miranda warnings before: "You have the right to consult with a lawyer and have that lawyer present during the interrogation; if you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed to represent you." Criminal defendants who can't afford a lawyer are most often assigned a public defender who is employed and paid by the county, state, or federal government. The vast majority of these governments don't bill defendants for these services.

Not so for South Dakota, where defendants are charged a $92 an hour for the right to a public defender, and then charged with a crime if they can't pay.

If You Couldn't Afford an Attorney Then, You Probably Can't Now

The Argus Leader is reporting that South Dakota is sending criminal defendants a bill if they were represented by a public defender, sometimes for thousands of dollars worth of legal work that defendants can't afford to pay. When the bills go unpaid, defendants are subject to further arrest and incarceration.

Deputy public defender Katie Dunn told the Leader the system is like "a black hole for these indigent defendants," who can find their way back into the criminal system because they couldn't afford to pay for their defense. The paper also reports that officials in Minnehaha County are considering creating a new state debt collection agency to more aggressively collect court-appointed attorney debts.

You Have the Right to Pay the State ...

While the right to an attorney is well-established, the exact parameters of the right have not been. The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right for a criminal defendant "to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense," and in Gideon v. Wainwright the Supreme Court held that criminal defendants who can't afford an attorney must be appointed one.

After that, whether you need to prove your indigence in order to qualify for a public defender and whether you'll be billed for using a public defender can depend on where you live. Thirteen states charge defendants fees for court-appointed lawyers or public defenders, and defendants in Florida and Ohio may have to pay even if they are acquitted or the charges are dropped.

If you've been charged with a crime or have questions about public defender services where you live, you can contact an experienced criminal defense attorney.

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