Interviewer: Are defendants eligible for public defenders or court-appointed attorneys even though a run of the mill DWI is not a criminal offense?
Lauren Scardella: Yes. In New Jersey a defendant is entitled to apply for a public defender if the case involves a consequence of magnitude. A consequence of magnitude means fines in excess of $750 or a license suspension or jail time.
In the case of a DWI because there are potential for all three of those penalties, defendants are entitled to apply for a public defender. Whether or not they meet the financial standards is a different story but yes, public defenders are available for DWI charges.
Self-Representation, Public Defenders and Private Attorneys: Which Option Is Best to Defend a New Jersey DWI Charge?
Interviewer: If someone were to represent themselves, what would you say is likely going to happen versus being appointed a public defender or retaining a private attorney? How would you compare the three?
Self-Representation Is Not Advisable Due to the Complexities of Navigating the Court System
Lauren Scardella: I would say that somebody who wants to represent themselves is not likely to get very far in the court system. Public defenders in municipal courts in New Jersey are actually just appointed positions. These are people who are private attorneys; they’re paid by the township or the municipality to work as a public defender in that municipal court.
Court-Appointed Attorneys Generally Have a Private Practice as Well and Have Less Time in Which to Devote to Each Client
Often they are attorneys that have private defense practices on top of taking these jobs as public defenders. Sometimes there is a difference in the value of the service you get from a public defender as opposed to a private attorney. I wouldn’t say that that’s always the case.
I think that there are issues with public defenders in terms of requesting expert reviews and there are issues in the amount of time that they can devote to each case. There are issues with the amount of time that they have to meet with each client. Public defenders get paid very little for each case and usually have a very high volume of cases, which means that their clients often don’t get the same kind of time and attention they would get from a private attorney.
Interviewer: Is it essentially a, “you get what you pay for,” scenario? They just don’t have the time and resources to do extra things that a private attorney might?
You Have to Meet Stringent Financial Standards to Qualify for a Court-Appointed Attorney
Lauren Scardella: I think that’s probably true. Yes, in most cases I think you get what you pay for, although that’s not always true. There are public defenders who are extremely conscientious and put a lot of time into their cases.
A public defender is better than representing yourself. But if you can afford a private attorney who specializes in DWI defense then, I would say, most times you are more likely to have a more favorable outcome than with a public defender.
Do Many People Have the Impression That a DWI Charge Isn’t Serious Enough to Warrant Hiring an Attorney?
Interviewer: The reason I ask is I don’t know if you encounter people that say, “Well, I may as well represent myself,” or “Oh, a first time DWI is not really that serious, I should represent myself or just plead guilty.”
Lauren Scardella: I get people sometimes who’ll say, well, I’m guilty so I was just going to plead guilty. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve been sitting in court when somebody just pleads guilty without an attorney and it’s painful to watch because you know that they haven’t had anybody review their case.
Pleading Guilty: The State Must Prove Their Case So It Is Always Advisable to Have an Attorney Review the Facts and Circumstances of Your Case
They don’t know that they have the right to defend the charge or they don’t care because they think well, I know I was drunk so I’m just not going to defend it.
That’s the wrong way of looking at it. It is not whether or not you think you were drunk it’s whether or not the State can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you were intoxicated and behind the wheel of a car.
It is important to remember the difference between those two issues.