Our experienced Broward criminal defense lawyers have long contended that while there are some fantastic attorneys employed by the public defender’s office, it’s sometimes akin to rolling the dice.
If you require a defense for a Broward felony charge and you qualify for a public defender, you don’t have a say in who you get. He or she will be expected to perform to the minimum standards – but that’s it. When it comes to your freedom, that’s probably not a gamble you want to take.
And now, the situation may have just worsened.
New rules are set to go into effect July 1 that will curb the amount that public defenders are paid by the state.
So for example, a man in Miami-Dade had been facing life in prison. He was appointed a public defender. That attorney spent about 335 hours on this case, which worked out to about $25,000 in legal bills. The jury ended up acquitting the man. But under the new rules, that same attorney would be paid about $2,000 total for his work. That breaks down to less than $6 an hour. To give you an idea of how bad that is, Florida’s minimum wage is $7.67 per hour.
What that means is that there will be fewer public defenders willing to take on cases. One attorney, speaking to a reporter with The Miami Herald, was quoted as saying that it is “fundamentally unfair to make a lawyer choose between his own bottom line and the freedom of his client.”
But that’s what’s happening with this measure, which was slipped into a larger bill in March. The idea was to curb the ballooning public defender fees funded by taxpayers. In theory, we can understand, but the subsequent side effect of that is that fewer quality, skilled lawyers are going to be willing to take on these cases. That means the chances of your criminal defense even meeting the minimal standards is reduced.
The Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is planning to challenge this rule, but the legal battle could take some time.
Essentially, there is a public defender’s office, but a number of potential defendants must be sent to the Regional Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel. However, there are a lot of times that they will declare a conflict as well. In that case, a judge appoints a private attorney from a pool in the area. These are lawyers who are typically paid a flat rate, but they can ask for more – up to $75 – if it’s necessary. If it’s a complex case, it could take years. They also aren’t paid until it’s concluded.
This measure has made it so that the pool of lawyers agree to that flat rate, and can’t make additional requests.
So let’s say you have a complex murder case that could take two-plus years of intensive preparation. It can be difficult enough for a firm to absorb that cost during those two years. Now you’re going to pay the attorneys $5.99 an hour?
Even fiscally conservative Republican lawmakers agree that for a lawyer to earn $2,000 on a first-degree murder case that could take years of preparation is “ridiculous.” But they’re waiting on the Florida bar to come up with a better solution.
In the meantime, you are far better off, if you’re able, hiring a private attorney on your own.
If you nned criminal defense in Fort Lauderdale or West Palm Beach, contact the Law Offices of Leifert & Leifert, a Partnership of Former Prosecutors, for a free consultation to discuss your rights. Call 1.888.5.DEFEND.
New fee rules rile South Florida defense lawyers, By DAVID OVALLE, The Miami Herald