When does the state have to provide me with a criminal defense lawyer?

Although the legal system in the United States is preferable to that of many other countries, one of the greatest injustices for those who are socially disadvantaged is their inability to hire expert legal counsel, often leading to higher sentences and more severe penalties when charged with a crimel.

Recently on our legal forum a user asked, “I have been charged with a crime. I cannot afford a criminal defense attorney. I am wondering when the state has to provide me a lawyer?”

Importance of a criminal defense lawyer

If you have been charged with a criminal offense good legal representation is critical. In fact, under the US Constitution you have been promised sound legal counsel, a guarantee that’s especially important given the complex body of state and federal legislation. And although many Americans are very smart and may have some basic legal knowledge, understanding the criminal justice process demands years of study; worse yet, even if you do not understand our legal system, pleading ignorance of the laws will not be a valid defense.

What a criminal defense attorney do for you?

A criminal defense lawyer can help you at every step in the criminal defense process. First, before the trial, they can ensure that you do not make any incriminating statements. They can also review evidence against you and convince the court to drop or reduce the criminal charges. They may also be able to request bail which will allow you to return home while you are awaiting your trial. Finally, they may also be able to negotiate a plea agreement.

If you case does go to court a criminal defense lawyer can help select a jury, present evidence to support your claim of innocence and file all necessary appeals if the court finds you guilty.

When can I get a court-appointed criminal defense lawyer?

Americans have the right to be represented by a criminal defense lawyer if they have been charged with a crime. Given that criminal defense lawyers may make hundreds of dollars an hour this is great news for many defendants who cannot afford to hire their own legal counsel. In order to get a court-appointed criminal defense lawyer, however, you will have to ask for one and you will have to provide information to the court which proves you do not have the resources to hire your own lawyer.

Requests for a court-appointed lawyer generally occur at the arraignment. In fact, there may be a lawyer “standing by” ready to jump in and help you through the arraignment process. This may or may not be the lawyer who is permanently appointed to your case. If a lawyer is not available at the arraignment the court may also decide to postpone your arraignment or take some additional time to review your financial position.

How do I know if I qualify for a court-appointed lawyer?

To find out whether or not you will qualify for a court-appointed lawyer in your state you will have to review your state’s rules. All states have instituted rules to make this determination, although the court can also have some say in this decision after considering the charges and the potential legal costs for your defense.

Another option is for the state to provide you with a court-appointed lawyer but require you to reimburse them for part of the defense costs. Talk to the court if you have questions about your options.

What kind of defense can I expect from a court-appointed lawyer?

One of the most important questions is not whether or not you can afford to hire a criminal defense lawyer but whether or not you cannot afford NOT to.

Many court-appointed lawyers are terrific lawyers with a sound knowledge of the law and years of experience. Unfortunately, many of them are also terribly overworked with dozens of cases. This is especially true in recent years as funding has been reduced. So while having a court-appointed lawyer may be better than having no lawyer, it is generally better to try to hire your own lawyer who has the time to focus on your case.

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