Will a Public Defender Do a Good Job in a DUI Case?

Getting a court-appointed attorney for a drunk driving charge.

By , Attorney · University of San Francisco School of Law

For many people facing DUI charges, hiring a private lawyer either isn't an option at all or would be a substantial financial burden. Generally, private attorneys charge at least a few thousand dollars to handle a DUI case. Public defenders (and other court-appointed attorneys), on the other hand, are generally free.

But what's the downside to having a public defender represent you in a DUI case? Will a public defender do the same job that a private DUI attorney would do? Or should I hire a private lawyer even if it'll cost a lot of money that I don't have?

This article covers some of the basics—good and bad—of being represented by court-appointed counsel in a DUI case.

Who's Eligible to be Represented by the Public Defender?

Generally speaking, anyone who's charged with a crime (such as driving under the influence) and can't afford to hire an attorney is entitled to an attorney who's paid for by the government. In most areas, this going to be an attorney from the public defender's office.

However, the exact criteria for who qualifies for the public defender's services differs by area. In some states, there are set income limits that determine eligibility. In other states, the judge will decide eligibility on a case-by-case basis. But typically, anyone who's requesting a court-appointed lawyer will need to fill out some sort of financial declaration that covers income, dependents, household expenses, and the like.

Depending on the circumstances, a defendant who's represented by the public defender might have to reimburse the state for some of the costs of the representation.

Are Public Defenders Good at Handling DUI Charges?

Defendants sometimes have concerns about the quality of representation they'll receive from the public defender. However, most public defenders have a great deal of experience handling DUI cases and generally do a good job.

Also, public defenders tend to have lots of trial experience. So, if a case is going to trial (as opposed to being resolved through plea bargaining), public defenders sometimes have a leg-up on private lawyers who don't take as many cases to trial.

In short, defendants who are charged with driving under the influence will normally be in good hands with the public defender.

What Are the Disadvantages of Having a Public Defender for a DUI Case?

With most criminal charges, the entire case is handled in criminal court. However, a DUI arrest generally leads to a criminal court case and administrative DMV proceedings. Administrative DMV proceedings can result in license suspension regardless of what ultimately happens in criminal court. So, ideally, you'll have the same attorney representing you in both criminal court and administrative proceedings. Unfortunately, public defenders just do criminal court—they can't represent you in DMV proceedings. If you want your attorney to handle both proceedings, you'll need to hire a private attorney.

Another potential disadvantage of being represented by the public defender is you don't get to choose who specifically will be handling your case. Generally, clients have no say in which attorney from the public defender's office is assigned to their case. And even if you're not happy with your public defender, it can be hard to convince the judge to appoint someone different.

Finally, when you go with the public defender, you'll generally need to show up for all the court dates. If you hire a private attorney, on the other hand, your attorney can typically appear for you without you being present in court.

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