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Why court-appointed attorneys are not necessarily free - KRISTV.com | Continuous News Coverage | Corpus Christi

Why court-appointed attorneys are not necessarily free

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File Photo: Court-appointed attorney with client in court. File Photo: Court-appointed attorney with client in court.

The U.S. Constitution says people too poor to afford a lawyer should be appointed one paid for by taxpayers. 

In Texas and across the country, defendants are sometimes asked to repay part or all of the costs of their court-appointed lawyer if they are convicted. 

This practice is called recoupment. 

"There is no such thing as a free lunch. If you are appointed an attorney, you may have to make payments back in restitution or recoupment in payments as part of the fine. If you are found guilty, for sure you are going to have to pay it back. Those fees can range from a couple of hundred dollars all the way to several thousand," said Lawyer Joe Flores. 

Texas counties recouped more than $11 million from poor defendants in 2016, 4.5 percent of the total amount spent on indigent defense statewide. And for those who think they can beat the system by not paying these fees, think again. 

"The county has its own special team of lawyers. If you owe money to the county, they can go back and put liens, sue, and seek relief that way in judgements. And they have good attorneys," said Flores. 

The fact that people cannot afford attorneys in Texas has become a big problem. The good news is there is help. 

"There are plenty of attorneys that also volunteer time through the legal referral information service of the Texas Bar," said Flores. 

On average, attorneys appointed by Texas courts are paid $200 for a misdemeanor case and can go all the way to $5,000-$10,000, even $15,000 for capital murder. 

Depending on the court, defendants in Texas can be deemed indigent if their income is less than $49,200 for a family of four. 

Flores says that often, if you reach out to that attorney that represented you or appointed to you or the court and ask them for a payment plan, and be honest, that will help. But remember to be open, honest, and tell the truth if you can truly pay.  Tell the court what you CAN pay. Misleading the court will lead to ruins. You need to remember, that court-appointed attorney that has to be paid by someone. 

Criteria for a Court-Appointed Attorney
The justices in Gideon unanimously held that "in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him." However, the Court later clarified this ruling, making it apply to cases where the defendant is charged with either a felony or a misdemeanor which could result in imprisonment from a conviction. This rule also applies to juvenile delinquency proceedings. 

There are some limited exceptions to the rule, including:

  • defendants who are mentally ill or developmentally disabled;
  • children; and
  • in some cases involving child custody or child protection. 

To determine whether you qualify based on income level, you may have to gather financial documents and prove to the judge that you lack the funds for a private lawyer. However, some courts may take you at your word (for example, homeless individuals lacking such documentation). 

Counties may determine eligibility for a public defender in a number of different ways, but your ability to afford a lawyer typically is based on your income and expenses. 

Some judges may ask you to get estimates from as many as three private attorneys before approving the assignment of a public defender.

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