Anyone accused of a crime in the United States has the right to an attorney if they face jail time. That includes anyone charged with operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated under Michigan law.
As anyone who has watched a crime-related TV show knows, part of the famous Miranda warnings includes the statement: “if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you,” or something to that effect. If the court determines you are indigent you will have the right to a court appointed attorney. However, the court will ultimately charge you some fee for use of the attorney. In addition, just because you have the right to a court appointed attorney doesn’t mean that that is the attorney you should trust to defend you against DUI charges (or any other charges, for that matter). In this post, we explain why it’s almost always worth your investment to hire a private attorney rather than to accept the services of a “public defender.”
The Public Defender System in Michigan
Michigan does not have a single, unified public defender system. Instead, each county decides on its own how to organize, appoint, and pay attorneys who represent criminal defendants who cannot afford their own lawyer. Historically, it has been a very troubled system.
In 2008, the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA)—a nationwide advocacy group for legal representation of indigent criminal defendants—issued a scathing assessment of Michigan’s patchwork public defender system. NLADA found “that the state of Michigan [failed] to provide competent representation to those who cannot afford counsel in its criminal courts.” Although some criminal defendants under that system might have received adequate representation, NLADA found, overall “none of the public defender services in the sample counties [were] constitutionally adequate.”
Ten years on, the resources and support provided to Michigan’s court-appointed attorneys for indigent criminal defendants have improved, according to the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission (which was created in the wake of the NLADA report). But challenges remain. Court-appointed attorneys for criminal defendants, by and large, get paid much less per hour than private attorneys. Those who work in organized public defender offices frequently have large caseloads that limit the amount of time they have to devote to each client. They often lack budgets big enough to hire investigators and expert witnesses their clients need to mount an effective defense.
Don’t get us wrong. There are lots of excellent public defenders out there; smart, hard-working, and committed lawyers who do an admirable and often thankless job, day-in, day-out. But on the whole, they will not be able to provide a customized defense and spend the same amount of time creating a strategy to not only try and win your case but to also minimize your damages if your DUI case cannot be “won.” Once an outcome is decided by the court, you don’t get a second chance to fix it or do it over. You must make the right decisions from the beginning. It is your life and livelihood on the line.
What Private Attorneys Can Do That Public Defenders (Usually) Can’t
In other words, having a public defender represent you in a DUI case might give you a good defense. The public defender might have the necessary time to devote to your case. The public defender might have the financial resources to pay for services you need.
If you want certainty, however, then you need to seek private defense counsel for your DUI defense, an attorney who has the time and resources necessary to mount the most effective defense available. Specifically, a private attorney has the bandwidth and skill to:
- Investigate the facts and circumstances of your DUI charge. Many DUI defendant’s mistakenly believe that if they “blew” a Breathalyzer test that registered over the legal limit, they have “no case.” In fact, sometimes an investigation will reveal that law enforcement did not have a legal right to stop your vehicle or did not administer the test properly, or that the equipment had faults, or that the reading was a “false positive” owing to the defendant’s body chemistry.
- Negotiate with prosecutors from a position of strength. All criminal defense attorneys typically try to convince prosecutors to pursue lesser charges or to agree to pre-trial diversion. But only lawyers who have the resources to have investigated and constructed a thorough defense, and who may have the ability to mount a formidable trial strategy, can extract the best possible “deal” from a prosecutor.
- Litigate before a judge and jury. Of course, public defenders can go to trial, too, but private attorneys have the time and bandwidth to prepare meticulously for trial, to locate, interview, and prepare relevant witnesses, and to plan a winning trial strategy.
Simply put, a private attorney does everything a public defender can’t; not because the public defender lacks the skill, but because the private attorney has the luxury of time and resources to do the job right.
In addition, a private attorney can deal with things that public defenders can’t. Public defenders can’t represent you at a license reinstatement hearing, for example.
The Cost of Hiring a Private DUI Attorney
But wait, you might be thinking, what about the cost? It’s true. There is one other significant difference between a private attorney and a public defender. You pay the private attorney out of your own pocket (although many defense attorneys will work with their clients to find ways to manage the cost). But just because you don’t pay a public defender doesn’t mean the defender’s services come free. Not, at least, when you take the potential cost of a DUI conviction into account. Having a DUI conviction on your record, particularly if you have more than one, can cost you your driving privileges, your job, and your reputation in the community, at a minimum. More likely it will hang over your life in ways impossible to imagine at the present moment.
We like to explain the calculation this way to our clients: If you choose to go with a public defender, and you end up with a DUI conviction, there will be a moment in your life when you would give any amount of money to take that decision back and have the strongest possible defense instead. When that time comes, the amount of money you would pay to take it all back will be far more than what it costs to hire a private attorney today.
Bottom Line: If You Can Afford to Hire a Private Criminal Defense Lawyer, You Should
The reality for some people is that they simply can’t afford a private lawyer. But if you can afford private criminal defense, you should make the investment. There are some amazing public defenders out there, no doubt about it. But to find out if yours is one of them when you face a DUI conviction, you’ll have to gamble with your future.
To find out more about the benefits of hiring a private attorney to defend your DUI charge, contact a skilled Michigan DUI defense attorney today.