Unfortunately, many Floridians are under the false assumption that anyone who doesn't want to pay for a lawyer when they are accused of a crime will be provided representation for free. The truth is that you have to qualify to have a public defender assigned to your case by being "indigent." We explain what the requirements are and what to do if you don't qualify but don't think you can afford a lawyer.
How Public Defenders Are Assigned in Florida
You have a constitutional right to legal representation when you have been charged with a criminal offense, but you are only given free representation if you can prove that you don't have the ability to pay for a private attorney. Under Florida law, that means that your income must be equal to or less than two times the current federal poverty guidelines, or you can show that paying for an attorney will be a significant hardship on your family. The specific income guidelines change whenever the federal poverty standard changes, but on average, an individual would have to be earning less than about $25,000 a year or a family of four would have to be earning less than $50,000 to qualify for a public defender.
If you think you should qualify, you would fill out an Affidavit of Insolvency and turn it in to the clerk's office for consideration. There is a $50 non-refundable fee to apply for a public defender to represent you, but you cannot be denied representation if you don't have the money.
Why You Might Not Want a Public Defender, Even If You Qualify
While public defenders are fully qualified attorneys who have passed the Florida bar, they are not able to offer the same level of representation as an attorney in private practice because they are generally inexperienced and overworked. Many criminal defense attorneys start their careers in the public defender's office to get more experience, so, in essence, they are learning as they go—with your freedom at stake.
Private attorneys do cost money, but when you are facing a criminal conviction, it is well worth the investment. At Flaherty & Merrifield, we offer our clients the following:
- Individualized attention. As private lawyers, we can devote more time to each client's case, thoroughly analyzing evidence and tailoring defense strategies to their unique circumstances.
- Investigative resources. We have access to a network of investigators and experts who can gather additional evidence, interview witnesses, and analyze forensic data.
- Case preparation. Our team can spend more time preparing for hearings and trials, focusing on legal research, developing legal arguments, and crafting persuasive presentations than a public defender's schedule allows.
- Focus on client communication. Our staff communicates frequently and directly with clients, ensuring they understand their rights, options, and the progress of their cases.
- Thorough trial preparation. We have the flexibility to spend more time preparing for trials, including jury selection and witness preparation, and crafting compelling opening and closing statements. Often, public defenders are meeting their clients for the first time in front of a judge.
- Alternative sentencing. Because we take the time to get to know our clients, we can explore alternative sentencing options, such as diversion programs or rehabilitation, to help clients address underlying issues.
- Post-conviction appeals. Our team provides thorough post-conviction representation, including filing appeals, seeking post-conviction relief, and pursuing expungements or record sealing.
- Personal reputation and relationships. We are motivated to maintain our professional reputation, so we go the extra mile for our clients. Public defenders work so many cases at one time that they don't have the luxury of worrying about their success rate.
At Flaherty & Merrifield, we offer free, in-person consultations to anyone who contacts us about a case. During the meeting, we will learn the details of your case to determine how complicated it will be. Then, we will give you an exact quote for what we would charge to represent you. We do not bill by the hour—all of our fees are a flat rate, and we never add on extra costs later on. And we put that in writing. We accept credit cards and offer payment plans to make it possible for people to pay for our services. We are not the cheapest firm in town, but we are also not the most expensive, and our results speak for themselves.