As an American citizen, you are entitled to certain rights. One of those rights concerns the protections you are due when you have been arrested. When an officer arrests someone, he or she is required to inform the arrestee of their Miranda rights. One of the most important pieces of information that is communicated during this process is the individual's right to an attorney and that if they cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for them. The actual wording of the Miranda Rights varies between different jurisdictions, but this piece of information is universal: if you cannot afford to hire an attorney, the state will be sure that your constitutional rights are protected, and provide one for you.
This may seem appealing to some people. In the midst of economic struggle, the offer of free legal services can be appealing. Is it the smartest decision, though?
Your Constitutional Rights
Your right to an attorney stems from the 6th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Under the 6th Amendment, any individual facing jail time for his or her alleged crime is entitled to the assistance of counsel for his or her defense. One of the central focuses of our Constitution is the protection of liberty. Incarceration is one of the most direct ways that this right may be challenged. It follows, then, that an individual facing the potential loss of his or her personal liberty should be afforded an adequate opportunity to defend against any such action.
The Supreme Court has interpreted this to mean that anyone facing jail time or death, when unable to afford his or her own representation, should be provided free legal representation. In most jurisdictions, lawyers provided by the state in satisfaction of the 6th Amendment are referred to either as public defenders or indigent defense lawyers.
How Does One Qualify for Free Legal Representation?
In order to qualify for a public defender or indigent defense lawyer, you must satisfy a few criteria. The first is that your alleged crime be one that can result in jail time. Another criterion that must be met is that you must be able to prove that you are indigent. In determining whether someone is indigent, the state of Washington requires proof that you show your household income is 125% or less of the federally set 2015 poverty level. Gathering and preparing the documentation necessary to prove your economic status is a key part in requesting and securing an indigent defense lawyer.
Are There Any Disadvantages to Using a Public Defender?
Equal protection under the law is meant to be accessible to everyone, regardless of his or her socioeconomic standing, or of the crime he or she has been accused of committing. This idea is what draws some attorneys to the public defender position. While this is certainly a noble endeavor, there are some downfalls to this particular field.
One of the major issues public defenders face is burnout. Burnout can occur when an individual is overwhelmed with the number of cases he or she is required to take on. The state of Washington provides the following limits on caseloads for Washington state public defenders:
- 150 felonies per year
- 400 misdemeanors per year in a jurisdiction that does not use case-weighting, or 300 case-weighted misdemeanors per year
- 250 juvenile offender cases per year
- 250 civil commitment cases per year
- 36 appeals per year
- 80 open juvenile dependency cases
These limits are in accordance with federally established guidelines. However, this is not always an easily enforced standard. According to the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, it is more realistic to expect public defenders to be managing caseloads of 500 - 800. A New York Times investigation shows that some public defenders have caseloads upwards of 1,600 a year.
When you are one of dozens of clients that an attorney is faced with representing, it is easy to slip through the cracks. In many cases, a public defender is only able to meet his or her client right before they are required to appear in court for the first time. A defendant may spend days or weeks in detention before a public defender is able to meet with them. In some cases, when a public defender is finally able to meet with his or her client, their caseload requires them to spend less time than needed in preparing their client's defense.
Similarly, there are a number of reports of instances where, despite their client's firm insistence that he or she is innocent, a public defender advises them to plead guilty and take a reduced sentence. The reasoning is that instead of mounting a lengthy defense that may result in longer prison time, the client should just take the lower sentence received for a guilty plea. This practice is referred to as “Meet ‘Em and Plead ‘Em”.
When a public defender is overloaded with cases, it is often the client that suffers.
Protect Your Liberty
Your personal freedom affects every other area of your life. In the state of Washington, a DUI can carry penalties up to $5000.00 and up to 364 days in jail. If you are in trouble and need a Washington DUI lawyer, it is advised that you hire one that has the time and resources to provide you with the best chance of avoiding fees or possible jail time.
Your personal freedom is one of your most valuable possessions. In safeguarding it, make sure you consider the importance in securing the right attorney to advocate for you in court. Russell West of the West Law Office has years of experience in zealously defending his clients across a wide array of legal issues. If you need help, do not hesitate; reach out to the West Law Office today for a free consultation.