Every person charged with a crime in the United States has a constitutional right to an attorney. The Texas Legislature passed the Fair Defense Act to provide prompt and fair appointments of defense attorneys to indigent defendants. Criminal defense attorneys across the state assist indigent defendants by taking appointed cases at significantly reduced prices.
There are some key differences between a court-appointed attorney and a retained attorney. The first and most important difference is choice. When you retain an attorney, you have the ability to choose and retain the person you believe will be the best criminal defense attorney for your case. It’s a very personal decision.
If you are eligible for a court-appointed attorney, you will have no say in who your court-appointed attorney will be. Your lawyer is selected randomly from a rotating wheel of attorneys. Many people don’t want to leave their freedom and criminal record to the luck of the court-appointment wheel. This is especially true if you are looking for an attorney on a specialized case, such as a DWI, sexual assault, white collar crime, federal offense, or for a case going to trial.
The second major difference is price. Court-appointed attorneys are not entirely free in most cases, especially if you bond out of jail. The court may order you to pay back the court-appointed attorney fees as a bond condition and as a condition of probation. That fee, however, will be much less than that of a retained attorney. Retained attorneys, on the other hand, vary greatly in price. Attorneys who require low down payments are generally in the volume business and often provide the same level of service a court-appointed attorney provides. Attorneys who charge at least half down are generally not in the volume business and can provide personalized attention.
While that is true in many cases, it is not an absolute truth. It is true that the more experienced and qualified an attorney is, the more the attorney will cost. However, who you pick as your attorney should be based on how comfortable you feel with that attorney.
To request a court-appointed attorney, you will fill out a financial questionnaire stating that you cannot afford an attorney. The court will take into account your stated ability to pay, the number of dependents you have, as well as other factors such as whether you bonded out, who paid the bond, and the amount of the bond. Generally speaking, individuals who receive government support will qualify for a court-appointed attorney. The Fair Defense Act defines an indigent person as any person with a household income at or below the Living Wage Calculator guidelines as established and revised periodically by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and whose liquid assets do not exceed $15,000.
No. You do not get to pick your court-appointed attorney.
One of the most common questions defendants ask about court-appointed attorneys is whether they can be trusted with your case. The simple answer is, it depends. There are court-appointed attorneys who are excellent, and there are court-appointed attorneys who are not held in the highest regard. Certainly, a generalized mistrust of court-appointed attorneys is unwarranted.
Collin County has a summary of why court-appointed attorneys do not answer questions about the specifics of a criminal case with family members. You can read that article here.