By Rudy Serra
Q: IF I AM BEING CHARGED with embezzlement and I admitted to it, will I be able to get a court-appointed attorney even though I confessed? I am being charged with embezzlement (less than $200.00) from my place of work. I admitted to it, apologized and offered to pay it back on the spot. They told me to keep it, and told me they were going to press charges. This is my very first time doing anything so stupid. What will happen at my arraignment hearing?
ANSWER: The purpose of arraignment is to make sure you understand the charges against you and your legal rights. Some-times, defendants go through arraignment without a lawyer. When you face potential incarceration, you have the right to a court-appointed lawyer. Since bond is set at arraignment, in many cases there are court-appointed lawyers available at this stage. Sometimes, the court does not appoint a lawyer until after arraignment.
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”
In 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case called “Gideon v Wainwright.” In that case, the defendant was not able to afford to pay for a lawyer. He wanted one anyway. The court decided that defendants have a right to a government-paid lawyer in criminal cases if they can’t afford to hire one on their own.
Later, the court clarified that poor people can have a lawyer appointed if they face incarceration. If an offense is punishable only by a fine or some other non-jail sanction, then there is no right to counsel. You do not get a court appointed lawyer for running a stop sign or over-parking because these are called “civil infractions” for which there is no jail penalty.
The fact that a person pleads guilty has no effect on their right to a court-appointed lawyer. If a guilty plea could possibly result in jail time, then the court should appoint a lawyer for you.
Usually, a defendant has to prove their own inability to pay. The court pays for counsel only if you are “indigent.” Also, usually, if you get convicted, part of your sentence requires you to repay the court for your lawyer. The courts have adopted competency standards for appointed criminal defense lawyers. Some courts use a “House Counsel” system, where an assigned public defender rep-resents everyone in court that day. In more serious cases, like felonies, the court assigns one lawyer to one defendant. In either case, continuing legal education and other standards apply.
JUDGE RUDY REPORTS is a regular feature in Ferndale Friends. We welcomes questions from readers. If you have a legal question or concern, send your question by email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Advice about specific cases cannot be provided but general legal questions and topics are welcome.