If you watch television, the one Constitutional right you're bombard with everyday is your right to an attorney. But just because a cop will tell you, "...If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you ...," does this really mean you have a right to a public defender?
Well, if you financially qualify, the answer is "yes."
The right to the assistance of counsel is given in the Sixth Amendment and repeated forever with a policeman's reading of the Miranda rights. Still, whether you qualify for the free assistance of counsel may depend upon the rules in your state or county.
Generally, the Constitution just gives you the right to have legal counsel if you are charged with a crime. It does not necessarily mean you have the right to free counsel -- or the right to use a public defender -- especially if you are wealthy and can afford an attorney on your own.
As a result, most counties have financial restrictions on just who can use the services of a public defender. For example, some counties may require that your income be at or near the poverty level or that you don't have enough assets to afford an attorney.
Also, even if you have the right to a public defender, you should know that in some jurisdictions, a public defender is not necessarily free. States are increasingly imposing fees on indigent criminal defendants, including fees for the public defender. Sometimes defendants have to pay the fees even if they're acquitted of the charges.
- Is it better to represent myself than to rely on a court-appointed defender? (FindLaw)
- Got a DUI: Public Defender or Private Lawyer? (FindLaw's Blotter)
- Public Defenders by State (FindLaw)