A public defender is a court-appointed defense attorney who represents defendants who are considered “indigent” by the state. An indigent person does not have sufficient means to afford an attorney out of pocket, so the court appoints a public defender for representation.
Every state (and sometimes counties within states) has different criteria for indigence. Some states base their decisions based solely on the income of the defendant, while others will take into account property ownership, outstanding debts and dependents. Whether or not you qualify for a public defender can depend on any number of these factors.
In order to obtain the representation of a public defender from the court, a suspect must (1) request that the court appoint a public defender; and (2) provide details about his or her financial situation in a Financial Eligibility Questionnaire, which is taken under oath.
Regardless of whether or not the court takes into account property, resources and dependents, it is only the financial situation of the suspect that is taken into consideration. For example, if a suspect has wealthy parents but is indigent himself, the court will not deny the appointment of a public defender based on the resources of the parents. The only instance in which family is taken into consideration is in the event that the spouse is well-off.
Most people have mixed feelings about public defenders. On the one hand, a public defender might not be able to defend a suspect at the same level that a high-power attorney might be able to at cost. But on the other hand, public defenders typically work the same court day-in and day-out, and will be more familiar with the Assistant District Attorneys and the judges than will a hired attorney.
Most states also have a clause that allows for partial indigency, which means that the suspect walks the fine line between ingicency and affluence. He or she may be able to obtain the counsel of a public defender at a reduced fee, which will usually be 25-60% of the acceptable hourly rate of the private defense attorneys in the locality.
The most important thing, however, is not to lie on a Financial Eligibility Questionnaire. Never tell the state that you are unable to afford counsel when you are, or you could be in serious trouble. Public defenders are meant to represent people who cannot afford to obtain counsel otherwise, and if the system is abused, public defenders might not be long-lasting trend.
To find out if you qualify for a public defender or to learn more about public defenders and their role in the courtroom, contact your local Public Defender Office and speak with someone who can answer your questions.