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Frequently Asked Questions

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How do I get a public defender?
Would I be better off hiring my own lawyer?
Can I speak with a public defender even though I already have an attorney?
Can I speak to a public defender before my arraignment (first court appearance)?
How do I find out if I have a warrant for my arrest?
What do I do if there is a warrant for my arrest?
Does the public defender handle matters other than criminal cases?
How can you defend someone you know is guilty?
I was convicted of a crime a number of years ago. Can I get that conviction off my record?

How do I get a public defender?

At your first court appearance there is usually a "duty public defender" who is there to assist you. If you are out of custody, the court will have you fill out a financial declaration, under penalty of perjury, to determine if you qualify for a public defender or if you are financially able to hire a private attorney.

If you are in custody, the public defender is usually automatically appointed, unless private counsel has already been retained. If you have retained counsel, but are unable to afford his or her continued representation, inform the court as soon as possible that you would like a public defender.

Would I be better off hiring my own lawyer?

First, if you can afford to hire an attorney, you do not qualify for the services of the public defender and should hire your own lawyer.  The Public Defender's Office only represents people who cannot afford to hire an attorney.  If you really can't afford to hire an attorney, but want to borrow the money from family or friends because you believe you have a better chance with a private attorney, consider the following:

Public defenders have long suffered from a public perception as second rate lawyers who couldn't get a "real" job and had to "settle" for working for starvation wages as a public defender.  We also suffer from the belief by some that we don't really work hard for our clients. These are wholly untrue stereotypes. The attorneys who choose to work as public defenders are some of the brightest, best educated, and most dedicated lawyers there are.

The San Diego Public Defender's Office is made up of people who want to practice nothing but criminal law. They don't do divorces or "chase ambulances" or write wills.  They come from the finest law schools in the country including Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, UCLA, Stanford, Berkeley, and too many others to mention.  While almost all of them could earn more money if that was the most important thing to them, they still get paid pretty well.  The salary range is commensurate with the District Attorney's office.  The majority of our lawyers never wanted to practice any other kind of law, and have dedicated their careers to criminal defense work, and being Public Defenders, because they believe in what they do and like doing it. Because our lawyers don't have to worry about anything but representing their clients, they generally do it very well.

They are in court nearly every day. They know all the "ins and outs" of the courts in which they practice. They also try more jury trials in a year than most lawyers try in a lifetime. Our misdemeanor lawyers average about 10 jury trials a year; our felony lawyers average about 5. They also know what a case is worth in a settlement. About 95% of all criminal cases settle before trial. Public defenders like trying cases; they don't have to be concerned with the financial implications that going to trial may involve for a retained attorney and his or her client. So, if your public defender lawyer recommends a plea bargain, it is because he or she honestly believes it is in your best interest to settle the case, not because financial concerns require it.

Public defenders also have the benefit of outstanding in-house support services including a professional investigative staff, an appellate division, paralegal and clerical staff, interns and law clerks, as well as the shared knowledge and experience of the many other lawyers in the office.

Can I speak with a public defender even though I already have an attorney?

No. Once you are represented by any attorney, either appointed or retained, the public defender will not speak with you absent that attorney's permission.

Can I speak to a public defender before my arraignment (first court appearance)?

Our office can provide general information regarding the court process. The specifics of your case cannot be discussed until we are appointed.

How do I find out if I have a warrant for my arrest?

You can visit the San Diego County Sheriff's Department web page and do a name search; or contact the Sheriff's Office at (858) 974-2110.

What do I do if there is a warrant for my arrest?

If you are currently represented by an attorney, inform him or her immediately. The attorney can place you on the court's calendar to clear it up.  If you do not have an attorney, call the Sheriff's number above and find out which court issued the warrant. You will then need to either hire an attorney to take care of calendaring it; or you can calendar it yourself by going to the court clerk's office with either the warrant number or case number.

Quite often, if you appear before 8:30 a.m., you can stay and take care of the matter that same day.  Bear in mind there are no guarantees that you will not be arrested on the warrant until you appear in court, depending on why the warrant was issued. There is normally a duty Public Defender available in court to assist you when you appear in front of the judge.  You will have to fill out a financial declaration to qualify for the services of a Public Defender.  If you do not qualify for the Public Defender, you can request a continuance to hire your own attorney, or you may only have to pay a fee for the one day.  You can usually resolve the matter that day, if it is a minor one.   If not, the court can then recall the warrant, set future dates, and either release you on your "own recognizance" or set bail.  If bail is set you will remain in custody until a bond is posted.

Does the public defender handle matters other than criminal cases?

Generally speaking, no. If you are being sued, have immigration problems, are being evicted, have a worker's compensation claim, etc., you may qualify for assistance from other agencies.

How can you defend someone you know is guilty?

A defense lawyer's belief in a client's guilt or innocence is totally irrelevant. That determination is the job of the judge or jury under our adversarial system of justice. Every person charged by the government is entitled to zealous representation, something that may not seem important to some people until someone from their family is charged with a crime. Additionally, our job is every bit as much making sure that the Government doesn't overcharge or over punish a guilty client, as it is to see that it doesn't convict an innocent one.

We believe that criminal defense lawyers are really constitutional defense lawyers. We are the last line of defense between the individual rights and liberty of all citizens and the often misguided overzealous exercise of untold power by our government. If it weren't for criminal defense attorneys tirelessly challenging the power of the government to intrude into individuals' lives, no one would be safe from unreasonable government intrusion.

I was convicted of a crime a number of years ago. Can I get that conviction off my record?

Yes.  There are a number of qualifications to do so.  Click here to link to our Expungement Information Page.