According to the Sixth Amendment, a defendant has a constitutional right to be represented by an attorney during trial. It also means that if the defendant cannot afford an attorney, a public defender will be paid by the government to handle the case.
For anyone facing criminal charges who can afford an attorney, the question, “Is it worth it to hire my own lawyer or should I go with a public defender?” probably comes to mind.
Public Defenders are all licensed attorneys and members of the Hawaii State Bar. Public Defender lawyers work only in the criminal law field and are constantly in court advocating for their clients, so they are very experienced. In fact, many Public Defenders have been recognized as some of the best criminal defense attorneys in the state.
Despite being paid by the government, Public Defenders are sworn to defend each client’s constitutional rights. The Office of the Public Defender will provide legal services to anyone who is financially unable to obtain a private attorney and is facing criminal charges that may result in jail time. They cannot represent you on traffic violations, criminal violations, in administrative license revocation proceedings, or in civil TRO hearings.
Deputy Public Defenders work as a team on cases, which means most clients will have multiple attorneys as well as investigators and other support staff helping with their defense. You cannot discharge a Public Defender if you simply don’t like them. The court will only assign you to a different Public Defender if there is a legitimate complaint about the lawyer’s performance. If you hired a private lawyer, you always have the right to discharge that lawyer and hire alternate counsel at any time.
One of the main differences between a Public Defender and a private lawyer is their caseload. It is part of the nature of the Public Defender’s job to handle a large caseload. As explained in this MauiTime article, the Office of the Public Defender gets especially bogged down during a downturn in the economy.
If you have lots of questions and value having in-person meetings to discuss the ins and outs of your case, hiring an experienced attorney is probably going to make you feel the most comfortable. This does not mean that hiring a criminal defense lawyer will guarantee you a better outcome than a Public Defender. It may be worth talking to different criminal defense attorneys before picking someone to represent you in court. However, make sure you talk to an experienced lawyer about your case right away.
More info on the Hawaii Office of the Public Defender can be found here.