Look: working with a Public Defender may not be your first pick.
But, if you can’t afford a lawyer, what else can you do?
However, before you work with a Public Defender, there are a few things you should know.
Here’s the deal, from the first interactions with police officers, to the final court date.
This is your “go-to guide” for working with a Public Defender.
The Public Defender
You have probably heard rumors about how terrible Public Defenders are. You have likely even heard these lawyers referred to as “public pretenders”. Unfortunately, seeing the Public Defender in this light may only end up harming you.
Truly, many Public Defenders have made the active choice of being a Public Defender in order to serve those in need. They even take a pay cut for defending the public as well. With Public Defenders making thousands less a year than privately hired attorneys.
Even worse, Public Defenders get assigned more cases than private attorneys. This means they often have very little time to work on your case due to their heavy case load. It’s also true that Public Defenders or attorneys hired to defend those accused of crimes are often personally close to the prosecutor, and judge. This may seem like a conflict of interest.
But things don’t have to be as bad as they seem...
It’s no secret that Public Defenders are often loaded down with case work, and often don’t have the time to handle each individual case with the time it needs.
Many private lawyers have worked in public defense offices or directly as Public Defenders. Nearly any attorney will tell you: public defense work is no easy job.
WORST OF ALL: Public Defenders are often not trusted by their clients!
“Many who deal with them incorrectly assume that Public Defenders are some kind of second tier attorney bought and paid for by the State with no regard for their clients’ cases. This is simply not true, and if you think this way then you’re likely to be working AGAINST your Public Defender, instead of WITH them. Working against your Public Defender will almost assuredly hurt your case.” –Matthew S. Boomershine
The Best Practices for Working with a Public Defender
Look, in order to write this article: I reached out to several lawyers and attorneys with experience as Public Defenders. And I got some amazing responses.
There were a number of issues each one of them hit on.
Throughout this ultimate guide on working with Public Defenders- I will be sharing some of the great statements I received from lawyers, combined with some of the best information currently available.
There are a lot of downsides to working with a Public Defender, but, the good news is that most of the downsides to working with a Public Defender can be made better by you!
And this guide aims to show you how to work with a Public Defender in an effective manner.
Step 1- When Interacting with Officers:
Look, its easy to get heated when the cops get involved with something.
But, from the beginning of any interaction with a law enforcement officer, to being arrested and booked…
It is important not to discuss the case with anyone, except for your attorney. This can be hard when you want to get your emotions off your chest, but it is very important!
‘“Do not give statements to police; do not allow your children to give statements to police; do not consent to searches of anything, but do not resist arrest or obstruct an officer executing a search warrant.”
“This seems like a no-brainer, but in many cases the defendant’s own statement to police is the strongest evidence against him/her.“
“(A person) is obligated to give “booking information” e.g. name, address, date of birth, etc. there is no obligation that anyone, under any circumstances, give a statement about whatever it is that the police are investigating.” – Falen O. Cox
Don’t Consent to Searches and Seizures
You see, it is not only important to keep quiet, but you should also not consent to unwarranted searches and seizures. This can be challenging when faced with heavily armed officers, but you do have a right to not consent to searches which are not warranted.
In some cases, consenting to a search can be as simple as allowing the officer in your home. Refusing search and seizures takes tact. It is important to NEVER lose your temper, be patient, all the while firmly stating your refusal to consent to a search. This takes being informed about what police may and may not do and learning how to interact effectively with police.
This video does a very thorough job of explaining the topic of your rights during police interactions:
Step 2: When Being Booked
When you arrive at the police department, Step 1 is still important. In the article: Best Practices for Working With A Public Defender, Attorney Falen O. Cox really goes into detail about what to do before, and while, being booked or detained.
First, invoking your 5th amendment right and 6th amendment right to counsel should be done from the beginning of the booking process. This means you will not discuss the case without an attorney present. However, you are still required to provide booking information.
Attorney Cox says that:
“This (invoking the 6th amendment) is stronger than the Defendant’s own 5th Amendment right to silence.”
Once either or both rights are invoked defendants should no longer communicate with police, except for booking information.
“A defendant who has invoked the 5th or 6th amendment who later initiates conversation with law enforcement has waived that prior invocation (e.g. defendant says he wants a lawyer, the police leave the room then return to tell him he’s being arrested, and then the defendant says something to the effect of “I didn’t even do this, why are you all arresting me, I wasn’t there, let me tell you what happened…).” – Falen O. Cox
Although a public defender is assigned to help a defendant in a criminal case, the defendant can also take actions to help their lawyer.(7)
Now it’s time to wait for your attorney, and if you are reading this, you are likely looking at working with a Public Defender. Once your right to counsel has been invoked, do not discuss the case with anyone but your attorney.
Step 3: Working with Your Public Defender
Now that you are finally working with your Public Defender, here is what you need to know!
Public Defenders have really gotten a bad rap, but just like a private attorney, Public Defenders are legally required to serve your best interests. They are required to keep the details of your case private.
Additionally, most Public Defenders genuinely care about defending the public, but they often receive little or no cooperation from their clients. This is a huge hitch when it comes to their ability to defend you.
Trust Your Public Defender
According to a few attorneys I spoke with, trust is a must when it comes to working with your Public Defender. The lack of trust currently present between Public Defenders and their defendants is a huge, crippling hurdle many Public Defenders face with their clients.
Matthew S. Boomershine, the criminal defense attorney with Bogin, Munns, and Munns, had this advice on trusting your public defender, and taking their advice:
“Cooperate with your Public Defender and trust them. If your Public Defender asks you to sign a document or handle something a particular way, LISTEN TO THEM and COOPERATE. They are there to help you, and often times they are your last line of defense against prosecutors, Judges, and a justice system in general that won’t lose any sleep over locking you up.”
“Individuals end up derailing their own cases by thinking that they know better than their Public Defender. Deviating from your lawyer’s advice is almost NEVER a good idea. Trust that they will help you, and follow their instructions. Don’t trust a guy-who-knows-a-guy that got a better deal or who got off of his charges over your own lawyers advice.”
“These types of stories are almost never accurate, and you’re better off trusting a trained lawyer who knows your case, knows the prosecutor, knows the law, and knows the Judge, than some guy-who-knows-a-guy. Your case, and your life, will be better for it.” – Matthew S. Boomershine
It’s true, trusting your Public Defender is a crucial element in helping your attorney defend you.
Cooperate with Your Public Defender and the Courts
The lawyers that I spoke with really honed in on the importance of cooperating with your lawyer. Though trusting your attorney is a crucial first step, cooperation is just as key.
All of the attorneys mentioned different methods for cooperation.
1. Arrive early
“Whether it’s for a meeting or hearing, the defendant should always arrive early. This gives you time to review your case and details with the public defender. The attorney will likely have a few minutes before your hearing to consult, so show up 20-30 minutes early.” –Samuel J. Randall IV
2. Read court mail
“Your public defender will not likely have time to remind you of every hearing and deadline. You should read all mail you get from the court or your attorney and make sure you discuss anything in advance.” –Samuel J. Randall IV
3. Follow up
“If you call or email your attorney, give them a few days and then follow up. Unfortunately, it’s easy to fall between the cracks of a public defender’s schedule. Let them know you have questions that need to be answered.” –Samuel J. Randall IV
4. Collect information
Your case may be complex, and the public defender has little time for an investigation. They will likely do their best, but you can help by bringing any information that you feel is relevant as well. If you have recordings, pictures, letters, or other information, bring it to the attention of your attorney.” –Samuel J. Randall IV
Those are certainly four great ways in which you can cooperate with your Public Defender. When you arrive early- you have time to talk with your Public Defender and establish a plan of action.
Reading court mail (as stressful as it may be), helps you cooperate by showing up on the right days. Locke’s point about following up is important as well.
“A public defender’s job is tough because they have too many cases and not enough time. Anything that helps the public defender have the information she needs will help her prepare the best case.” –Ryan C. Locke
I know, I know, it has been said a million times in this article, but the more time you can save your public attorney, the more time he can spend defending you!
Attorney Randall also tells us:
“Send the public defender information to use in a bond argument, or potential witnesses, or the existence of helpful evidence, or a list of witnesses to present at sentencing and what each one can talk about.” –Samuel J. Randall IV
Communicating with Your Public Defender
Another point that a few attorneys touched on was that: Public Defenders not only have to keep up with their clients themselves, but they also have to help defendants stay in touch with the outside world if their client is in jail.
As you can imagine, a Public Defender with 10 clients in jail would have A LOT of family members and friends to keep up to date. This isn’t exclusive to Public Defenders; the main complaint about attorneys is that they are bad at communicating.
Ryan C. Locke of Locke Law Firm explains:
“…find out how your public defender prefers to communicate and then do that. The biggest complaint about lawyers in general is that they’re bad at communicating with their clients. For public defender it’s especially difficult because of the number of clients they represent and because they’re usually in court for most of the day.”
“When I was a public defender, I used to call my clients back on Saturday mornings because I didn’t have time during the day to take anything but urgent calls. Other public defenders prefer to email or text. Find out what works best with your public defender and then do that.” -Ryan C. Locke
It gets better…
There are some other methods which can help you save your Public Defender time on their case. Falen O. Cox, of Cox, Rodman & Middleton had this piece of advice on saving your Public Defenders time…
“Nominate 1 person in your family to communicate with the public defender. Everyone knows that public defenders, and all other lawyers, have multiple clients. While most do not mind updating family members about the status of your case, relaying the same information to multiple people is time consuming and can lead to confusion.”
Now, I know that we have covered a lot so far, and you are working your way though this article quickly. But, this is THE ultimate guide for working with your Public Defender, so we must leave no stone unturned.
Matthew S. Boomershine, with Bogin, Munns, and Munns had a few important points to make about how to handle communication issues with your Public Defender.
“Stay in constant communication with your Public Defender and their office. One of the biggest problems Public Defenders face is a lack of communication with their clients. … Communication between a lawyer and their client is a cornerstone of competent legal representation, and it is virtually impossible for any attorney to provide effective representation without regular communication.”
“Be sure your Public Defender knows how to get a hold of you. Call their office early on in your case, and be sure they have the correct address, phone number, and email address for you in their file.”
“Call the office regularly to inquire about the status of the case. If you’re having difficulty reaching the attorney assigned to your case or getting any helpful information about the case, ask to schedule a meeting at their office, in person, to discuss your case.”
“If that’s not possible, ask for a scheduled telephone call with the attorney.” -Matthew S. Boomershine, Bogin, Munns, and Munns
Boomershine made a lot of good points about communicating with your Public Defender, and how to address possible issues in communication which may occur. He also stresses the importance of communicating your case before arriving at court.
“If you have a meeting or a scheduled call with your Public Defender – make sure you are there as scheduled and on time for the appointment. Don’t wait until your Court date to speak with your Public Defender or meet with them.”
“Often, these scheduled Court dates will involve hundreds of cases scheduled to be heard at the same time, and Public Defenders will not have extra time to sit down with you in Court and discuss your case.”
“Even if they could make time, talking about your case with your lawyer in a public courtroom, in front of your Judge and the assigned prosecutor, is never a good idea. Most courtrooms are recorded, and anything you say in there could potentially be used against you later by the State.” -Matthew S. Boomershine, Bogin, Munns, and Munns
Collaborating with Your Public Defender
Many individuals may want to help their Public Defender. And in fact, it may be a good idea to do so, due to the limited amount of time which Public Defenders can spend on your case. Learning the law may be helpful, but it may also put you in the way of your attorneys work.
Falen O. Cox had some great points to make on this subject saying:
“The client is the expert on the facts and the lawyer is the expert on the law.”
“While most good public defenders will welcome collaboration with the client about his or her case, a better use of the client’s time is making sure that the lawyer knows all relevant facts, letting the lawyer know who might speak for him or her, and helping the lawyer to tell his or her story.” –Falen O. Cox
That being said, the most important thing you can do to help your Public Defender is to help him gather as much facts and evidence as possible. This starts with being honest, and trusting that your attorney must keep your conversations confidential.
Matthew S. Boomershine, with Bogin, Munns, and Munns made these points about helping your Public Defender build your case.
“Be involved in your case. Ask your Public Defender for copies of all discovery materials received in your case. When you receive these – read them. Take notes on them. Go through everything. Look for anything that you think may be incorrect or incomplete about your story.”
“Write it all down, and send it to your Public Defender for them to review. Some of what you notice may not be significant for your case, but some of it may be. Ask for a meeting with your Public Defender BEFORE your scheduled Court dates to discuss your notes on the discovery materials.”
“Also, Keep your own folder and file of all documents related to your case so that you can stay organized and keep track of everything for yourself.” –Matthew S. Boomershine
In-between now and your case, you need to recall as much information as you can. The more information you can provide your Public Defender, the better he or she can defend you. Boomershine goes into detail about the information you can prepare to make the most of meetings with your lawyer.
“Make the most of your time with the Public Defender. Understand that even the best of Public Defenders will have limited time to give each of their clients. Make the most of it. When you know you’ll be speaking with your Public Defender or meeting with them in person, come prepared. Bring with you any and all documents relevant to your case.”
“If you have evidence in your possession that you think will help your case (such as text messages, photographs, emails, etc.), print out copies of those items for your Public Defender to keep and bring them with you. Be prepared with the full legal names and contact information (address, phone, email) of any and all witnesses you feel are necessary for them to speak with about your case.”
“If possible, bring those witnesses with you to your scheduled meeting so the Public Defender can meet them and speak with them. When you meet with your Public Defender or speak with them about your case, take detailed notes and keep those notes in your own file or folder for later reference.” –Matthew S. Boomershine
Keeping Your Court Dates and Progress
Look, there are still a few more things you need to keep in mind when working with your Public Defender. I know that it is a lot of work, but your freedom and livelihood may be on the line. So, I want to add a few more points about following the progress of your case.
It is your responsibility to show up to court dates and meetings on time. No Public Defender has the time to consistently keep track of you and remind you of your cases. Again, the more time you can save your Public Defender, the better they can serve you.
Matthew Boomershine had these final remarks to make:
“Know your own Court dates, and be present and on time for each and every one when required. Don’t rely on the Public Defender to handle your Court dates for you. Stay on top of your case’s progress, and know when you are required to be in Court.“
“If you don’t know, call the Clerk of Court in the County where your case is being handled – they can advise of your scheduled Court dates right over the telephone. When you speak with the Clerk, be sure to ask them to update your current address in their system – this way the Clerk will be able to mail your Court notices to the right address to ensure you’re getting them as the case progresses.”
Also, many jurisdictions now allow the public to track criminal cases online – ask your Clerk if they offer an online system to track the progress of your case. If they do, locate that online system and learn to use it – there you will be able to find information about documents filed in your case and also be able to keep track of all scheduled Court dates.”
“Most of these online systems are free and do not require any kind of registration or account setup. Many local public libraries now offer internet service for free – if you don’t have access to the internet, find a local library to visit regularly and keep track of your case.” –Matthew S. Boomershine
What’s the Bottom Line?
As you can see there truly is A LOT you can do to make the most out of working with a Public Defender. A lot of this is on you.
It’s a lot of work to be sure, but rest assured that Public Defenders are professional attorneys. They are sworn by law to defend you.
Hopefully you find what you need in this guide, but be sure to continue your research. Falen O. Cox had a lot more to say on the issue, and you can find her full interview at Best Practices for Working With A Public Defender, an Attorneys.
Thank you to the excellent attorneys who took time out of their busy schedules and shared their experiences and knowledge with the public.
If you learned something be sure to comment and share.
With your support we can bridge the disconnection between the public and Public Defenders.
Again, thank you to the attorneys that helped with this article. More information on them here:
Matthew S. Boomershine, the criminal defense attorney with Bogin, Munns, and Munns, in Orlando Florida.
Samuel J. Randall IV, a criminal defense attorney at Randall & Stump PLLC in Charlotte, NC.
Ryan C. Locke, Esq. of Locke Law Firm, LLC a Criminal Defense & Personal Injury attorney. Atlanta, Georgia
Falen O. Cox, Esq. of Cox, Rodman & Middleton Personalized Legal Services of Savannah, GA