DUI Cases: Pubic Defenders versus Private Attorneys


Hiring a lawyer to represent you in a DUI/DWI case is one of the most important decisions you will ever make. A good lawyer can make the difference between having a case dismissed in its entirety versus a conviction and the huge impact this will have on your life and wallet. Many low and middle-income defendants make the mistake of believing that their DUI charge is not fightable and so may as well “settle” for a public defender. They may also feel they will be “saving” money by not hiring a private attorney. In reality, only an experienced attorney can tell you what the strengths and weaknesses of your case are after spending some time reviewing it. And frequently, a good attorney will pay for themselves in terms of the money they can save you in reduced jail time, license suspension, fines and surcharges, not to mention increased insurance premiums.


For some, using a public defender may be their only viable option because they simply have no other means to afford a private lawyer. Others may want to reevaluate their decision to go with public defender after reading the up and downsides of both options below.


Upside of using a Public Defender



Enables low income clients to have legal representation versus defending themselves


  • Getting some legal advice and representation is obviously preferable to defending yourself
  • Courts, judges and prosecutors can be extremely intimidating places, especially for first-time offenders. Take advantage of your right as an American citizen to have a lawyer with you through the process to ensure your rights are being upheld



A good, experienced public defender may be able to get a better result than a bad, inexperienced private attorney


  • Even though public defenders are notoriously overworked and underpaid, this doesn’t necessarily mean they are a bad lawyer. It just means they have less time to spend on each case. Some may be just as adept at getting a good result for their client in a very short period of time.
  • Whether you get a good public defender or not, and how much experience that defender has with DUI/DWI cases, is really a lottery that you have zero control over.



Public Defenders are free of charge in most states


  • Although some states require that you pay back the cost of the public defender based on your means
  • Check with your local court to find out what their rules and regulations are
  • If you are only saving a few hundred dollars by going with a public defender, you should definitely consider the private attorney option


Downside of using a Public Defender



Government employees


  • Paid a civil servant salary which are generally much lower than those in the private sector



Overwhelming caseloads


  • Handle as many as 100 to 200 cases at a time
  • Seriously overworked and underpaid compared to private attorneys





  • Public defenders handle a wide variety of cases at any given time: murder, rape, robbery, drug possession and so on in addition to DUI/DWI cases, so many may not have the same level of specialist knowledge in the DUI field that a private lawyer who only handles DUI case has



Less experienced


  • Many newly qualified attorneys cut their teeth at the Public Defender’s office in order to gain experience and decide on what area of law they want to specialize in



Minimal client face time


  • PDs often meet with clients and review their cases just minutes before the client is due to enter a plea. Generally this is not enough time to get a very good sense of who their client is very important in formulating a defense
  • This could also lead to the PD missing small but crucial details about a case that a more thorough investigation would reveal



Interested in resolving case as quickly as possible


  • Because PDs get a fixed salary regardless of success rates, it may be in a public defender’s interest to encourage a lopsided plea-deal which doesn’t necessarily have their defendant’s best interest at heart in order to resolve a case expeditiously, rather than go to trial, which means a lot more time and preparation for the PD but no extra pay
  • This is unlike a private attorney, who actually makes more money by going to trial, and an aggressive attorney will be more than happy to do so if they feel they have a good chance of winning at trial.



You do not get to choose your attorney


  • You have to accept the defender assigned to you, unless you have a very good reason not to. If you simply do not like your assigned attorney, or don’t feel they have your best interest at heart, tough luck.



You may earn too much to qualify for a public defender, even if you are cash-strapped


  • If you are a low or middle-income, you may not even qualify for a public defender as there are very stringent income cut offs points.
  • You will need to check with your county or state court as to what the income criteria is for your area, and may have to spend time showing proof of income in order to qualify
  • Because public defender services are in such high demand, the income thresholds are set very low so chance are you may not even qualify for one even if you work a minimum wage or commission-only job.



Your case could take longer to be resolved


  • Because public defenders are managing so many cases simultaneously, the likelihood of court appearance conflicts with their clients is much more common.
  • As a DUI/DWI case will typically be lower priority for the public defender than a murder case for example, it may be that your court dates keep getting pushed back simply because the defender is not available.
  • This could obviously be very frustrating as you want to be able to move on with your life and have a resolution as quickly as possible.


Upside of using a Private Attorney



You get to choose from a vast selection of qualified attorneys


  • In any major metropolitan area, there are literally thousands of qualified DUI/DWI defense attorneys to choose from
  • You can interview as many private attorneys as you want before choosing one to represent you, as most offer a free one hour consultation without any obligation to hire them on the spot
  • This is a huge benefit over using a public defender, as you obviously want to feel comfortable talking to your lawyer, be sure you can reach them to discuss your case when you need to, and most importantly be confident in their ability to represent you
  • You can use resources like Avvo.com to read lawyer ratings and reviews from previous clients. You can also talk to friends and former clients of the attorney you are looking to hire to ensure you are making an informed choice
  • Private attorneys thrive based on their reputation and in today’s internet-driven world it is increasingly more difficult or bad attorneys stay in business for very long if they are not meeting their clients’ needs and expectations



Less cases means more time on each case


  • Private attorneys typically handle between 10 to 50 cases at a time
  • This is far more manageable caseload than a public defender’s typical caseload and so will be able to conduct a far more thorough analysis and do additional investigation work on your case, that a PD simply won’t have the time to do
  • This is key when it comes to finding holes in the prosecution’s case against you which can in turn be used to get the case dismissed entirely or at least have some of the charges dropped or reduced



More resources at their disposal


  • Private attorneys will have an existing network of private investigators, expert witnesses, private chemical testing laboratories, associate lawyers and paralegals that they can draw upon to do further work on your case. Bringing in a credible expert witness to dispute the results of your blood or breath test for example, could be the difference between an innocent or guilty verdict in a DUI/DWI case.
  • Of course the client will have to foot the bill for the use of the attorney’s extended network outside of their office staff



Specialize in a DUI/DWI defense


  • Despite DUIs being the number one crime in the United States, it has become an extremely a complex area of law. Some attorneys argue DUI cases are even more difficult than handling a murder case because of the lower burden of proof. In a murder case, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty – not so with DUI cases as the defendant is assumed guilty based on their blood or breath tests.
  • The complexity of this field of law and abundance of cases has led many attorneys to specialize exclusively in DUI cases. Some decide to gain additional accreditation from the National College for DUI Defense Education.
  • A lawyer who is a member of the National College will be updated with the latest trends, case law, scientific research, and cutting edge strategies for defending DUI/DWI cases, by attending conferences, seminars, and receiving journals. A public defender may not have the same access to, or time to read, the latest information in the field.



Payment plans


Most private attorneys realize that a large percentage of the population does not have a spare couple of thousand dollars lying around, and most cases occur unexpectedly, so many will allow you to retain them with a small deposit plus monthly payment arrangement that is affordable to you



Feared Reputation/ Good Negotiator


  • A private attorney is more likely than a public defender to have a feared reputation at the prosecutor’s office, because have probably taken previous cases to trial and won. If they haven’t, you may want to look for another lawyer. This reputation alone may encourage the prosecutor to offer a more favorable plea-deal, as it is against the prosecutor’s protocol to take a case to trial that they don’t think they can win.
  • A savvy lawyer will be good at communicating and negotiating with the prosecutor and the judge, and will already have an established history with the players.
  • A good lawyer knows that they do not necessarily have to win the case at trial; they just need to convince the prosecution that they will not be able to.



Less time in court


  • With a public defender, the only time you get to consult with them is in court, normally a few minutes before your appearance so you have to go to court for every appearance, even those that are not required just to talk to your lawyer.
  • With a private attorney, you will consult with them at their office and over the phone, and so they attend court on your behalf for the times that you are not required to be present.
  • A private attorney will also attend the Motor Vehicle Department hearing with you, which a public defender will not. This can make a huge difference to you keeping your driver’s license, or at least obtaining a restricted one, while your case is pending.



You can fire a private attorney


  • If you are not happy with the way the attorney is handling your case - maybe they never return your calls, or you have been passed off to a lower level associate when it was your understanding a partner would be handling your case - you can simply fire them and move on to the next attorney.
  • You will of course have to compensate the old one for the time they already spent on your case, so switching attorneys several times could get costly, and could give the impression to the prosecution that you having trouble building a strong defense.
  • As in every profession, there are a few lemons out there but if you did your homework well enough before hiring the attorney, this won’t be an issue.


Downside of Hiring a Private Attorney



Private attorneys are expensive


  • For a standard DUI/DWI case, most will charge a flat-rate of between $3000 to $5000. Although many do offer payment plans, you could still be paying off your attorney long after your case has been resolved
  • However, you should factor in the added costs that you would have had to pay in fines, lost work time, alcohol education classes, ignition interlock, and so on, if you didn’t retain the lawyer who was able to get some of your charges and penalties reduced



There are no guarantees


  • Simply spending a large amount of cash on a lawyer does not automatically ensure you will get a better result for your case.
  • An ethical attorney will be upfront with you before you hire them and tell you exactly what they feel they can and cannot do for you. However, there are obviously some less ethical lawyers out there who may sugarcoat the reality of how they can help, simply to earn your business.



Some lawyers pass case off to lower level associates


  • Unfortunately this has become a fairly common industry practice. The impressive, charismatic lawyer you see advertise in the firm’s TV commercials are rarely the ones to actually represent you in the case.
  • Be sure to ask during the free consultation that many offer who will actually be doing the bulk of the work on the case and representing you in court.


In order to find an experienced DUI/DWI attorney in your area, visit our home page and complete the short contact form.


By Richard Jacobs

Share |