The Truth About Federal Public Defenders

Last week I received a call from a stunned and sad white collar defendant who was abruptly fired by his defense attorney at his guilty plea.

“Wow, I am really in trouble now, right? They are appointing me a federal public defender. I hear they are overworked and understaffed. There is no way I am not getting a longer prison sentence now, right?”

As I express in this video, Federal Public Defenders get a bad rap! Since 2008, White Collar Advice has personally guided more than 1,000 defendants through sentencing. Of those 1,000 federal prison consulting clients we estimate that 10-15% of our clients worked with Federal Public Defenders. In most cases the outcome with the federal public defenders was positive. I talk about why in this video.

For some background, in 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a major ruling known as Gideon v. Wainwright. In the Gideon case, the Court found that people who have been charged with offenses have a Constitutional right to a lawyer. If a defendant cannot afford a lawyer, the Court will appoint a licensed attorney (at no charge to the defendant.)

Before appointing a lawyer to represent a defendant, the Court may require the defendant to submit a financial statement. After reviewing the defendant’s ability to pay, the court will decide on whether the defendant qualifies for appointed counsel. In this case since the defendant who called me could not re fill his retainer with this current lawyer (and for the most part was out of money), he was appointed a federal public defender.

For clarity, qualifying for a federal public defender does not necessarily mean that the defendant is utterly impoverished. It simply means that after reviewing the defendant’s finances, the Court agrees that the defendant does not have sufficient financial capacity to hire a criminal defense lawyer. The court will then turn to the public defender’s office, or the bar association to hire a lawyer that will represent the defendant.

Regardless of whether the court pays for the lawyer, or the defendant pays for the lawyer, the attorney has a fiduciary duty to represent the defendant. In other words, the lawyer has a legal and moral responsibility to represent the defendant to the best of his or her ability. Many lawyers aspire to build careers as public defenders, suggesting that they place a high value on social justice and assisting people in need.

As I discuss in this video, despite having to manage extensive caseloads, federal public defenders are often extremely effective advocates for their clients. They have access to an abundance of training and resources, and in my experience, are open to the feedback and opinion of others experts, like me!

Whether a defendant hires a lawyer or is appointed a federal public defender, it is the defendant’s obligation and responsibility to speak truthfully, offering background, insight, context and any evidence that may exonerate or mitigate the charges. The more effectively a defendant can help an attorney understand what happened, the more a defendant empowers his lawyer to build a defense.

To learn more about working with lawyers, read Chapter 2 and 3 of Prepare! The links follow:

Our team hopes you find value in this video.

Thank you,
Justin Paperny