According to the Minnesota Board of Public Defense, court-appointed lawyers represent about 150,000 individuals in criminal cases in state courts each year. Public defenders represent the majority of felony defendants, and most minors accused of crimes as well.
So, when are you entitled to a Minnesota public defender? The basic rule is that the government will provide an attorney for you if you cannot afford one yourself. However, there are disadvantages associated with free legal aid that you should take into consideration.
This post breaks down what you need to know in more detail.
Who’s Entitled to a Minnesota Public Defender?
The right to an attorney is protected under both the state and US Constitution. In Minnesota, court-appointed lawyers are potentially available to defendants facing a felony, gross misdemeanor, or misdemeanor charge, or individuals appealing convictions for any such charges.
According to Minnesota law, anyone who receives means-tested governmental benefits, or has a dependent family member who does so, is considered unable to pay for counsel and qualifies for a public defender. Alternatively, a judge can assess your liquid assets (assets you can easily turn into cash) and earnings to decide whether you can afford to pay for a private attorney. It’s important to note that a court is obliged to reject your request for a public defender if you can pay for your own attorney but simply choose not to.
You can request the representation of a court-appointed lawyer at any stage of criminal proceedings. However, it is generally a good idea to ask for it the first time you appear in court. When applying for a public defender, you will have to make a statement about your finances under oath and agree to disclose any material change in your financial circumstances while the case is ongoing.
Are You Entitled to a Public Defender in a Minnesota DWI Case?
You can apply for a court-appointed lawyer to represent you in relation to any misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor, or felony charge. A 4th-degree DWI is a misdemeanor, 3rd- and 2nd-degree DWIs are gross misdemeanors, and a 1st-degree DWI is a felony, so public defenders are potentially available for all Minnesota DWIs.
You should note, however, that you will not be entitled to a court-appointed attorney if you try to challenge a driving license revocation following an implied consent violation. That’s because this is a civil, rather than criminal, matter, so the government is not obliged to fund an attorney for you in a case of this nature.
Are there any Disadvantages to Using a Public Defender?
While public defenders are generally highly capable lawyers, some may find the services they provide to defendants are different than those available from private attorneys. In a particular situation, one may argue that a court-appointed lawyer may have so many cases to manage that they may be less able to direct the same amount of resources to any single defendant for an extended period of time as opposed to a particular private attorney. This is not just a Minnesotan problem; an ACLU report from 2022 revealed that public defender systems in some states have tens of thousands more cases than they can comfortably handle.
You should also note that you will not get to choose your public defender; you’ll have to accept whatever attorney the court appoints to represent you.
Getting the Right Legal Representation Following a Criminal Charge
A Minnesota public defender is a good option for anyone facing a criminal charge who cannot afford to hire an attorney themselves. However, as noted above, it’s important to realize that there are differences in the services a court-appointed lawyer may be able to provide as opposed to a private practice attorney, especially in the area of DWI/DUI defense.
If you’re facing a Minnesota DWI or another type of criminal charge in the state, get in contact today to schedule a free initial consultation with us.