Will I Get a Free Attorney if I am Accused of a Crime?

It is a common misconception that a person accused of a crime automatically has a right to a court-appointed attorney at no cost. Generally, only defendants facing jail time who have earnings below the poverty line are entitled to a public defender.

The first criteria for receiving court-appointed counsel is whether the defendant is facing jail time. If the statutory penalty for a misdemeanor does not include jail time or the prosecutor indicates that they will not seek a sentence involving jail time, then the defendant is not entitled to court-appointed counsel. But for many defendants, a misdemeanor conviction can have serious collateral consequences regardless of whether the penalty involves jail time. This could include loss of a professional license, loss of an AZ fingerprint clearance, immigration consequences, or substantial financial penalties. Without an attorney, a defendant is left to consider these consequences on their own, with no one to advocate to the judge or prosecutor on their behalf to mitigate these collateral consequences.


The other criteria for being appointed counsel at no cost is that the defendant must have the inability to afford an attorney. This generally means that the defendant must have earnings below the poverty line. In 2018, the federal poverty level for a family of four was about $26,000. The court looks at earnings, disposable income, assets and current circumstances to determine whether a defendant has the ability to pay for an attorney. Even if the court appoints an attorney, the defendant may be required to repay the costs as part of their sentence.

There are a few other things to consider, even if you do qualify for a court-appointed attorney. First, you will not get to choose your attorney. If you do not agree with the way your case is being handled, it can be very difficult to convince the court to appoint a new attorney and this could cause significant delays in your case. Additionally, while many public defense attorneys are experienced attorneys, they do carry a high caseload.

When facing criminal charges, whether felony or misdemeanor, you should consider the long-term “costs” should you be convicted or accept a plea deal that could not only result in jail time or fines, but also affect your ability to maintain a security clearance, rent a home, attend school, or live and work in the U.S. An experienced criminal defense attorney can not only defend you against the criminal charges you are facing, but also mitigate other collateral consequences that may continue to affect your life for years to come.

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About Michael Harwin

Michael’s skill and experience have been recognized repeatedly. He holds an A-V 5/5 preeminent rating by Martindale Hubbell. He has been named one of the top lawyers in Arizona by Southwest Superlawyers, and one of the best lawyers in Tucson by Tucson Lifestyle Magazine. He also has been named one of the best lawyers in the United States by BestofUS.com , and given the highest rating possible by AVVO, 10/10 Superb.
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