Our Constitution has declared that one of the most important personal rights afforded to us is the right to have an attorney represent a person accused of a crime. If a person cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed at the court’s expense thereby creating the court appointed attorney. One of the first important decisions a person charged with a crime makes is whether to hire their own.
Lawyers appointed by the court come in different forms. In district courts where misdemeanors are adjudicated, it is common for one court appointed attorney (CAA) to represent all of the indigent defendants for a judge’s docket on a given day. It is common for a CAA to handle between 10-15 cases in a given morning or afternoon. Handling each case typically requires, reviewing police reports, conferencing with the prosecuting attorney, consulting with the client and appearing before the court for each client. Indigent client’s charged with felony cases are typically distributed one by one to the CAA.
The bottom line: a CAA does not get compensated very much for each case, and is therefore not motivated, nor inspired to go to any length to achieve the best outcome. Because the nature of their duties this can create an assumption that most everyone is guilty and the CAA will complete the least amount of work as possible to “represent their client” and the client will “get what he deserves”. While this attitude and minimal effort will suffice when satisfying the requirement that every indigent person must be represented, the results have much to be desired. This dynamic emphasizes the appropriateness of the quote, “you get what you pay for”. My opinion is not to disparage the CAA as incompetent, most are not. They simply do not have the time to give all of their clients the best representation they are able to perform. This is a systemic problem, not to be blamed on the individual CAA. This writer believes in our system of criminal justice as a whole but nothing is perfect. Too often a CAA will push a client through the system rarely asking and performing a jury trial which is often the best strategy for the best outcome.
The reasons for doing whatever is necessary to find the means to retain an attorney are numerous. First, EVERY criminal matter has the potential to affect the rest of your life and the lives of all persons who love you.
A retained attorney is typically paid by the hour and has a duty to expend every one of those hours doing what is in the client’s best interest. Because a retained attorney should not be burdened with time consuming court appointed work, their time is free to perform all the work that is necessary to obtain the best results for their clients. This means a complete investigation of all the available facts of a case including review of all reports, recordings and applicable law. Written requests for legal rulings from the judge accompanied by oral argument and cross examination of witnesses are routine. A good retained attorney is available to answer questions and provide advice and counsel to the client at all reasonable times. At all court hearings, the client is given one on one attention along with the expedited preference retained attorneys typically receive in court.
Perhaps most important, a retained attorney should provide a client with all available options and defenses. Possibly dispositive motions will be competently filed and argued. If a trial is being contemplated, a real assessment of its success will be provided. To win at a jury trial, requires a lot of work for a trial attorney. Only a retained attorney will be motivated to perform the necessary hours in preparation and during trial in order to prevail.
CAA often do not possess the same motivation to win. Winning is much more important to a retained attorney because it will aid his reputation and help provide more work in the future. When an attorney wins, word gets around which leads to more business. In most cases, the CAA will receive the same business, win or lose.
It is worth repeating, there are some very good court appointed attorneys that are available for indigent cases. Often, the higher the possible penalty a case is, the more qualified CAA will be assigned. But, it cannot be disputed, the CAA will be paid less than half as much as a retained attorney. Therefore, the retained counsel will work harder, longer and generally receive better results for their clients.