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FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS: Getting A Lawyer

Are Public Defenders real lawyers?

Absolutely!  All Deputy Public Defenders are attorneys who are members of the State Bar and are licensed to practice law in the State of California.  In order to become a Los Angeles County Deputy Public Defender in the Office of the Los Angeles County Public Defender,a lawyer who has already passed the State Bar examination must also go through a rigorous interview and oral examination so that the Public Defender can make sure that the person has the intellectual ability, the legal knowledge, and the commitment to practice criminal defense law.

Deputy public defenders in the Office of the Los Angeles County Public Defender are graduates of some of the finest law schools in the United States including, but not limited to:

  • Harvard
  • Yale
  • Stanford
  • University of Chicago
  • Columbia
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of California, Hastings College of Law
  • University of Southern California
  • Duke
  • Georgetown
  • NYU
  • Boston College
  • Loyola
Although all California lawyers are required to continue their legal education, the Los Angeles County Public Defender makes sure that his lawyers are continually trained and current in the law by offering extensive and specialized in-house training covering everything from how to try a misdemeanor case to death penalty defense strategies.

How do I get a Pubic Defender to represent me?

The primary responsibility of the Public Defender's Office is to provide superior legal representation of all persons -- whether in custody or not -- who have been accused of criminal misconduct, but are currently unable to afford to hire private defense counsel.

If you have been arrested and remain in custody, you will be brought to a local court usually within 48 hours of your arrest. If you are not in custody, you will be given a time and place to appear for your first court date. The first court date is called the arraignment, which is When you will be informed of the charges against you and enter a plea.

You have the right at all stages of the criminal process to be represented by a lawyer. When you first appear in court for your arraignment, you will be represented by the Public Defender's Office upon your request if you are indigent. In most courthouses, a Deputy Public Defender will be in the courtroom and will review the documents describing the charges against you along with the police reports. After reviewing the paperwork, this attorney will meet with you to explain the charges and the legal process.

In some courthouses there might not be a Public Defender immediately available in the courtroom where you are making your first appearance. The judge might call your case, inform you of the charges, and ask you how you plead even though you are not represented by a lawyer. The Public Defender believes that even though you might believe you are guilty, it is almost always a good idea to speak to an attorney before entering a plea, whether that plea be guilty or not guilty. There might be defenses available that you are not aware of and there might be consequences to pleading guilty (such as loss of a driver's license and immigration consequences) that could cause you problems in the future. If a Public Defender is not in the courtroom when the judge calls your case you can tell the judge that you would like time to consult your own lawyer or, if you are indigent, that you would like to talk to the Public Defender.

The Public Defender's Office represents only those people who cannot afford to pay for an attorney. At your arraignment -- whether you are in custody or not -- you may be required to complete a financial statement to determine whether you can afford a private attorney. If the Public Defender (or any other lawyer appointed by a court) represents you, state law requires that you be requested to pay a registration fee of $50.00. No person who qualifies for the Public Defender will be denied representation just because of inability to afford to pay the registration fee.

In some courts, the judge will examine your finances to determine whether you will be represented by the Public Defender. In other courts, that determination is made by the Public Defender. However, no person will ever be denied the assistance of the Public Defender because of inability to pay the registration fee or any other cost of appointed counsel.


Can I get advice from the Public Defender before I appear in court?

Being charged in a criminal matter can be extremely traumatic. It is perfectly understandable that you might want to speak with a Deputy Public Defender before your first scheduled court date. If this is the case, you do NOT have to wait for your first court appearance to talk to a Deputy Public Defender.

The best way to speak to a Deputy Public Defender is to call the Public Defender's Office at the courthouse where you have been told to appear for arraignment and ask to speak to an attorney. If you do not know which court you are supposed to go to, then you can call the Public Defender's Office at the courthouse nearest where you were arrested and ask to speak to an attorney. If you are in custody, we will accept a collect call.

A Deputy Public Defender may not be immediately available to answer your call because most Public Defenders spend much of their time representing their clients and not at their desks. The best times to call are usually early in the morning and late in the business day. If an attorney is not immediately available a message will be left for a Deputy Public Defender to return your call as soon as possible. If you feel your matter is urgent, be sure to say so when you call any Public Defender office.

Keep in mind, however, that the attorney you talk to before your court date will probably know nothing about your case and will not know your specific charges or have your police reports at his or her fingertips. In that situation, the attorney you speak with will do his or her best to discuss how the law may affect you, and what your rights are, as well as how your legal representative can acquire and preserve evidence to assist you in your case.

Another option is for you to actually go to the courthouse to speak to an attorney in person. However, be aware that you may have to wait to speak with an available attorney; perhaps the most practical way to get all the information you need is for you to call and schedule an appointment in advance, just as you would for a visit to the doctor or dentist.

It is quite natural to feel overwhelmed if you have been charged in a criminal case. If this ever happens to you, do not hesitate to call the Public Defender's Office for assistance. That is what we are here for.

What happens if I'm in custody and the police want to talk to me or to place me in a lineup? Can I get a lawyer? Before an individual who is in custody may be questioned regarding a crime, the law requires the police to inform that person that they have the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. If the person does not give up the right to an attorney, the police must arrange for the presence of an attorney before questioning can take place. Likewise, if the police wish to place a person who has been arrested into a lineup, that person has the right to the presence of an attorney at the lineup. The Public Defender has attorneys on call to serve those functions. A Deputy Public Defender who goes to the police station or jail serves as the person's attorney in the same way as if the attorney had been retained to represent the person. The attorney represents you, the client, not the police.

How do I contact my Deputy Public Defender?

Most of our attorneys and offices have voice mail, so you can call your lawyer at any time and, if the lawyer is not available to answer the phone, leave a message.  If voice mail is not available, if you call during business hours a receptionist will be available to take your message. Anytime you have to leave a telephone message for your attorney or speak with a receptionist, always remember to speak slowly and clearly. Leave your complete name, your case number, your next court date (if you know it), a telephone number, and the best time for your attorney to contact you.

You might also be able to email your attorney.  Most (but not all) Los Angeles County Public Defender email addresses consist of the first initial of the lawyer’s first name and the lawyer’s last name @ pubdef.lacounty.gov.   A Public Defender email address might look like jsmith@pubdef.lacounty.gov.   Be sure to confirm the email address with your lawyer. 

In some situations, a specific Deputy Public Defender might not yet have been assigned to represent you. If this happens, ask to speak with the Deputy in Charge or Head Deputy of that particular office.


I forgot the name of my Deputy Public Defender. How can I find out who is representing me?

Call the Public Defender's Office where your case is pending. Provide the receptionist with your case number, or -- if you can't remember the number -- provide your full name and date of birth. Ordinarily, that information alone will be enough to help our staff determine the name of your attorney. The receptionist will then give you the direct number for the attorney and connect you to that person's office.


I forgot my court date. How do I find out when it is?

If you don’t know your next court date, don’t put off calling to find out.  Missing a court date without a really good reason might result in the judge taking you into custody when you do show up or a warrant being issued for your arrest.  The easiest way to find out your next court date is to contact your Deputy Public Defender.  If he or she is not available, you can call the Public Defender’s office at the court where your case is being heard and most likely our staff will be able to tell you your next court date. Whenever you call a Public Defender Office, it is always very helpful to have your case number available.


I forgot where my court is located. How can I find out where I'm supposed to appear?

Contact your Deputy Public Defender, who can give you that information. If he or she is not available, call the office of your attorney and give your name and case number to the receptionist. In most circumstances, our staff will be able to tell you the precise location of your particular court and give you directions how to get there.


I can't afford a lawyer! Will I have to pay to be represented by the Public Defender's Office?

You might, but it depends upon your personal financial situation. Under California law, every person who is represented by a court-appointed attorney, which includes the Public Defender's Office, must be asked to pay a registration fee of up to $50 to the County of Los Angeles. You will not be forced to pay anything nor will you be denied the services of the Public Defender if you cannot afford to pay the registration fee.

When your case ends, if you have been represented by appointed counsel such as the Public Defender's Office, the judge may conduct a hearing to determine whether or not you have the present ability to pay all -- or a portion of -- the costs of your court-appointed attorney. At this hearing, depending upon your income and expenses, the judge may order you to pay for the cost of the services of your attorney, some of the cost -- or none. If the judge determines you have the ability to pay some or all of the costs, you will be ordered to pay according to your financial situation. If you cannot afford to pay, you will not be required to do so.


How much can I earn and still be eligible for the services of a Public Defender?

It depends on all of your current financial circumstances and how much debt you have as well as the complexity of your case. As such, there is no specific dollar figure which makes you ineligible for the services of the Public Defender. For example, individuals who are in custody and are unable to post bail are presumed to be eligible for Public Defender services. On the other hand, if the person can afford to post a large amount for bail, then he or she might not be eligible. If the person has enough financial assets to afford private counsel, then the person is not eligible to be represented by a Public Defender.

Regardless of whether a defendant is in custody or out of custody, all of that person's financial obligations (such as the need to support a family, pre-existing debts, rent/mortgage, etc.), are balanced against assets and income in determining whether that person can afford to hire private counsel.


What is the Alternate Public Defender?

The County of Los Angeles has established the office of the Alternate Public Defender. That office provides legal representation for defendants the Public Defender cannot represent. This may occur, for example, when our office already represents another defendant accused in the same case, or the defendant happens to be a witness against another public defender client in a separate case. This is called a "conflict of interest." Attorneys who work for the Alternate Public Defender are not employees of the Public Defender's Office.

When both the Alternate Public Defender and the Public Defender cannot represent a client because of a conflict of interest, the court then appoints a private attorney. Those attorneys, likewise, are not employees of the Public Defender's Office.


Are all "appointed attorneys" employees of the Public Defender's Office?

There are essentially three categories of criminal defense attorneys who would be appointed to represent an indigent criminal defendant in Los Angeles County.  The first would be Deputy Public Defenders employed by the Los Angeles County Public Defender.  If for some reason the Public Defender cannot be the lawyer (such as if there is a conflict of interest), then the next lawyer normally appointed would be an Deputy Alternate Public Defender, who is employed by the Los Angeles County Alternate Public Defender, which is a separate office created by the County of Los Angeles.  If neither County office is able to represent a defendant, then the court would appoint a “private lawyer,” sometimes called a “987 lawyer,” which refers to Penal Code section 987.2.  These lawyers are not government employees although they are paid by the County of Los Angeles for the work they do on a defendant’s case.

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