Busted! Private Attorney or Public Defender?

Berlin Sylvestre, Staff Writer

The Anonymous Queer Public Defender strikes again!

For our first installment, we discussed what you should do if you get pulled over and an officer is tryin’ to get all up in your car to search it. No, ma’am! This time, we’re shootin’ the breeze on what happens if you’re arrested and need an attorney … but can’t decide whether to shell out big bucks hiring one or to go with a court-appointed public defender. (The answers may surprise you!)

Alas, FENUXE presents: The Anonymous Queer Public Defender!


Are there advantages in hiring an attorney versus being assigned a public defender?

If you’re straight-up busted and you plan on negotiating the best plea, you’re better off saving your money and letting the public defender negotiate for you — they know the prosecutors really well and many times get the benefit of a “bulk rate,” if you will. They are usually better clued in on alternative ways to resolve the case that they’ve seen the prosecutors accept in the past. Public defenders do criminal law all the time so often they are more knowledgeable about the law than many private attorneys who do criminal.

If you definitely want to go to trial (and have the money), it makes sense to hire a private attorney, but only if he/she has lots of experience and is known to go to trial.

Got it. So for trials, hire an attorney.

There are very good trial attorneys who are public defenders, actually. The thing with getting a public defender, though, is that cases are usually assigned randomly within an office and you can’t pick which attorney in the public defender’s office you want — the one they give you is the one you have to roll with and you don’t get to switch public defenders.


Is that true even if a defendant thinks the public defender may not have their best interest in mind or isn’t doing a good job?

Right. If clients were allowed to switch out public defenders, it would defeat the purpose of random assignments and one public defender may wind up with way more cases than the other.

The main drawback to public defenders is that their caseloads are crazy and they don’t have as much time to hold your hand and answer all your phone calls as a private attorney does.

Do you think there’s more anxiety in clients of public defenders as opposed to private attorneys?

Criminal cases are stressful, no doubt about it, and some people need more reassurance than others.

So, when a person gets assigned an attorney, can they just … expect you to take it from there?

For the public defender, it’s often the “squeaky wheel” that gets the grease. They don’t have time to call all of their clients all day themselves so it’s best to affirmatively communicate with your public defender by leaving messages on voicemail and making appointments to go see them. They will sit down with you and discuss your case if you make that appointment and show up on time. You’d be amazed at how many clients never bother to make appointments or do make appointments then don’t show up. Drives us crazy! If you don’t make an effort to communicate with your public defender, don’t act all surprised on your court date when they give you the prosecutor’s recommendation and it’s not to your liking.