Is a Public Defender a real attorney?
Yes. All Public Defenders have had the same training as any other private attorney. This typically includes a college degree, followed by three years in law school. All Public Defenders must be licensed attorneys and therefore must also pass the bar exam in order to practice law.
What is the difference between a Public Defender and a Private Attorney?
The biggest difference is time. A Public Defender will always have far more cases than a Private Attorney. A Private Attorney will typically have more time to go into more detail with you or your specific case, while a Public Defender may have considerably less time to spend-depending on your case.
Do I have to have an Attorney/Public Defender?
Under the law, you are not required to have an attorney and you may represent yourself. This is called proceeding pro se (pro‐SAY). In most cases, it is not advisable to represent yourself; you will be bound to the same rules of procedure and conduct that an attorney is, which you may not be familiar.
What if someone else already has the Public Defender and they are involved in my case?
This is called a conflict of interest. If it is determined that there is a conflict, the Public Defender will ask the Court to appoint an attorney outside of the office to represent you. You do not get to request which attorney you are appointed.
Will my Public Defender fight for me?
Absolutely. Under the Rules of Professional Conduct for all attorneys, a Public Defender must competently and zealously advocate on your behalf. An attorney may not, however, knowingly lie for you, help you commit a crime, or mislead the court. Keep in mind that a good attorney should not mislead you on what a realistic outcome for your case can be. Often, a Public Defender will advise you of the legal issues in your case, how good the District Attorney’s offer is, and the strength of a case that goes to trial. Just because a Public Defender suggests that a plea offer is a good deal does not mean that he will not advocate on your behalf at any future negotiations, hearings, or trial.
Doesn’t the Public Defender work for the District Attorney?
No. The Public Defender and the District Attorney are completely separate offices. The Public Defender does not answer to the District Attorney, and the District Attorney does not supervise the Public Defender. While attorneys for both sides are socially polite to one another, there is respect and recognition that once court is in session each side is advocating for his or her individual client against the other—regardless of whether it is the Commonwealth or the Defendant.
I REALLY don’t have to pay anything for the Public Defender?
Usually. In the vast majority of cases, no expense is required to be paid on the part of a client for defense services—regardless of whether you win or lose or anywhere in between. It is possible, however, that certain expenses—such as acquiring certain documents, retaining particular experts, or requesting the presence of a particular witness could require at least a good faith payment.
Am I eligible for the Public Defender?
Possibly. The Public Defender considers all forms of income and any assets valued at over $500 to determine whether or not you are indigent. The qualification guidelines are based on the US Poverty Guidelines. Unfortunately, it is possible that an individual does not feel they can afford a Private Attorney, but is not considered eligible for a Public Defender.
Can the Public Defender represent me for my speeding ticket/request for PFA/child custody case/return of property dispute, etc.?
No. The Public Defender may only get involved in Criminal Prosecutions that may likely lead to incarceration. Civil cases – most cases that do not directly involve whether or not a person goes to jail ‐‐ are not eligible for representation.
How does a case proceed?
Typically, a case starts with a citation or arrest, followed by a preliminary arraignment. A preliminary arraignment is where the Magisterial District Judge sets bail. Depending on the bail, and whether or not a person can post the bail, he may be taken to jail until bail is posted. A date for the Preliminary Hearing is then set. The preliminary hearing is where the Commonwealth needs to only prove a prima facie case – this is sometimes called a probable cause hearing. If the Commonwealth succeeds at this hearing, or the Defendant waives it, the case will proceed to the Common Pleas Court. Once at the Common Pleas Court, the District Attorney and the Defense Attorney will have plea negotiations over the following months along with investigating leads on the case. Eventually, the Judge will request that the parties come to a decision on the case and request that the sides either enter a plea bargain or go to trial. If a jury trial is requested, a jury will be picked, and a trial date will be set. If a bench trial (Judge Only) is requested, the date will be set. If the defendant is found guilty, a sentencing date will be set. If the Defendant is found not guilty—they are released from the charge(s).
If I ignore everything, will the charges eventually go away?
Unless you plan on moving out of the Country permanently, No. This typically makes it harder to represent you, and could even cause you to serve a few days in jail, because you ignored a court order.
What do I need to apply for the Public Defender?
Try to have copies of all forms of income that you receive to prove your income. This can be in the form of multiple and most recent pay stub, a W‐2 Tax form, a 1040 Tax Form, an awards letter from Social Security, a bank statement showing deposits, statement of benefits for Food Stamps, any court orders showing you receive or pay child support or alimony, statements from any pension or retirement plan, among other things. You will also need a copy of your ID or Driver’s License, a copy of the criminal complaint, and if you are under 26, proof that you are not claimed by your parents or another individual. If you are claimed by your parents or someone else, you need proof of their income to be qualified.