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Private DUI Attorneys vs. Public Defenders

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There is a common perception that public defenders are not as good as privately retained DUI lawyers. This article explores some of the myths and realities about using the public defense system or hiring your own DUI attorney.

As a starting point, in order to get a public defender, you must qualify in most jurisdictions. While different states, counties and cities have differing criteria for qualification, the basic question is “can you afford to hire your own attorney?

Do you qualify for a public defender?

Qualifying for a public defender in a DUI or DWI caseIn most states, hiring a competent DUI defense lawyer will cost at least a few thousand dollars. So if that is out of the question in your budget, then you will probably qualify.

If you want a public defender and think you qualify, be prepared to share with the Court your financial information, including your income, your spouse’s income, your savings and your expenses. Some courts do this by questionnaire, others make you do it out loud while standing in open court.

The question of whether you qualify boils down to whether actually can’t afford it. Courts are aware that many private DUI lawyers accept credit cards and payment plans and will work with clients to make their services affordable over time. If you say you can’t afford to hire a lawyer because you have three car payments, a boat payment and a mortgage, many judges will force you to sell some of your assets in order to qualify. Other courts go purely by income. For example, if you make less than $24,000.00 per year, some courts will automatically assign a public defender. In almost every court in the country, if you make more than $50,000.00 per year, you probably will not qualify for a public defender.

Some states will not supply a public defender unless the State is seeking jail time. For most DUI cases the prosecutor always wants you to serve at least some time in jail or prison, so that is typically not a factor.

Why do public defenders get a bad reputation?

Most lawyers who work as public defenders do so because they are passionate about criminal defense. Although a few might do it because it is the only job they could get, this usually isn’t the case. No type of lawyer anywhere has a more thankless job than the typical public defender. There is a perception that if something is free, it is probably of lesser quality. While this may be true in some things in life, it is not always the case in law.

Public defenders get badmouthed a lot because:

  1. They carry very large caseloads;
  2. Their clientele face other challenges than the criminal charge for which the defender represents them such as poverty, drug abuse and mental illness;
  3. Their clients tend to be less educated and therefore are less able to appreciate or understand the job that their lawyer is doing for them;

Now if all you can afford is a bottom of the barrel private attorney who charges a minimal fee and offers very relaxed payment plans, then you may end up with a lawyer who has the same set of challenges as listed above for public defenders.

All things being equal, most people who can afford it, even if they have to really dig deep and get help from family and friends or take out loans, prefer to hire a good private DUI lawyer over a public defender.

We recommend that you look at the DUI law section for your state and contact a qualified private DUI lawyer in the area of your arrest for an initial consultation to get a sense of the local differences between a private lawyer and a public defender. In some states, public defenders can not help you with your license and insurance issues, whereas in all states private lawyers can assist you with all aspects of your case.


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