Questions

What is a Public Defender?

A Deputy Public Defender is a defense attorney appointed by the court to represent a criminal defendant. All Deputy Public Defenders are attorneys who are members of the State Bar and are licensed to practice law in the State of California. In order to become a Los Angeles County Deputy Public Defender, a lawyer who has already passed the State Bar examination must also go through a rigorous interview and oral examination so that the Public Defender can make sure that the person has the intellectual ability, legal knowledge, and commitment to practice criminal defense law.
Deputy public defenders in the Office of the Los Angeles County Public Defender are graduates of some of the finest law schools in the United States including, but not limited to:

• Harvard
• Yale
• Stanford
• University of Chicago
• Columbia
• University of California, Los Angeles
• University of California, Berkeley
• University of California, Hastings College of Law
• University of Southern California
• Duke
• Georgetown
• NYU
• Boston College
• Loyola

Deputy Public Defenders are continually trained and kept current on the law through extensive and specialized in-house training covering everything from how to try a misdemeanor case to death penalty defense strategies.

How do I get a Public Defender to represent me?

LA County Public Defenders represent only those people accused of a crime in state criminal court who cannot afford to pay for an attorney. Assuming you qualify for our services, when you first appear in court, upon your request, you will be assigned a Public Defender who will meet with you to explain the charges, the legal process and to plan your defense.

Will the Public Defender represent me if I am a resident of another state?

Yes. If you are charged with an offense that is filed in a court within the County of Los Angeles, and you are unable to afford to hire an attorney, the Public Defender’s Office is available to represent you, regardless of the state where you reside. The Public Defender’s office also represents clients in extradition proceedings. Your residency, citizenship status, or the type of proceeding you are involved in may raise issues unique to your case, however, and should be discussed with the attorney who is assigned to represent you.

Will the Public Defender’s Office represent me if I am not a US Citizen?

Absolutely. If you are charged with an offense that is filed in a court within the County of Los Angeles, and you are unable to afford to hire a defense attorney, the Public Defender’s Office is available to represent you, regardless of your citizenship status. The Public Defender’s Office also represents clients in extradition proceedings.

Can I get advice from the Public Defender before I appear in court?

You do NOT have to wait for your first court appearance to talk to a Deputy Public Defender.

The best way to speak to a Deputy Public Defender is to call the Public Defender’s Office at the courthouse where you have been told to appear for arraignment and ask to speak to an attorney. If you do not know which court you are set to appear, then you can call the Public Defender’s Office at the courthouse nearest where you were arrested and ask to speak to an attorney. If you are in custody, we will accept a collect call.

A Deputy Public Defender may not be immediately available to answer your call because most Public Defenders spend much of their time representing their clients and not at their desks. The best times to call are usually early in the morning and late in the business day. If an attorney is not immediately available, a message will be left for a Deputy Public Defender to return your call as soon as possible.

Keep in mind, however, that the attorney you talk to before your court date will probably know nothing about your case and will not know your specific charges or have your police reports at his or her fingertips. In that situation, the attorney you speak with will do his or her best to discuss how the law may affect you, and what your rights are, as well as how your legal representative can acquire and preserve evidence to assist you in your case.

What happens if I’m in custody and the police want to talk to me or place me in a lineup? Can I get a lawyer?

Before an individual who is in custody may be questioned regarding a crime, the law requires the police to inform that person that they have the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. If the person does not give up the right to an attorney, the police must arrange for the presence of an attorney before questioning can take place. Likewise, if the police wish to place a person who has been arrested into a lineup, that person has the right to the presence of an attorney at the lineup. The Public Defender has attorneys on call to serve those functions. A Deputy Public Defender who goes to the police station or jail serves as the person’s attorney in the same way as if the attorney had been retained to represent the person. The attorney represents you, the client, not the police.

How do I contact my Deputy Public Defender?

How to call my attorney:
The best way to contact your attorney is to call the Public Defender’s Branch Office related to the courthouse where you have been charged between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. You can locate the number for the different Public Defender offices on our website.

Simply provide our staff with the name of your attorney or, if you do not know it, your case number, or name and date of birth, and they will connect you to the appropriate lawyer.

Your attorney may not be at his or her desk to answer the phone because our attorneys are usually in court defending our clients. If this is the case, simply leave a message including your name, case number if you have it, and a call back number, and our attorneys will call you back as soon as possible.

How to email my attorney:
You might also be able to email your attorney. Ask your attorney for his or her work email address. In some situations, a specific Deputy Public Defender might not yet have been assigned to represent you. If this happens, ask to speak with the Deputy in Charge or Head Deputy of that particular office.

Go in person:
If you have an urgent question and have been unable to reach your attorney by phone or email, simply come to the appropriate branch office during business hours and schedule an appointment with your attorney.

I forgot the name of my Deputy Public Defender. How can I find out who is representing me?

Call the Public Defender’s Office where your case is pending. Provide our staff with your case number or, if you don’t know the number, provide your full name and date of birth. Ordinarily, that information alone will be enough to help our staff determine the name and contact information for your attorney.

I forgot my court date. How do I find out when it is?

It is very important that you not miss any court dates. Failure to appear in court as ordered by a judge may result in a warrant being issued for your arrest. If you forgot a court date, the best way to insure that you aren’t arrested, is to come to court immediately and let the court know what happened.

If you don’t know your next court date, the easiest way to find out your next court date is to contact your Deputy Public Defender. If he or she is not available, you can call the Public Defender’s Office at the court where your case is being heard. Our staff will usually be able to tell you your next court date. Whenever you call a Public Defender Office, it is always helpful to have your case number available.

I forgot where my court is located. How can I find out where I'm supposed to appear?

Contact your Deputy Public Defender, who can give you that information. If he or she is not available, call the office of your attorney and give your name and case number to the receptionist. If you don’t know the exact courthouse, you can call any of our branch offices at the numbers listed on our website, and our staff will assist you.

I can't afford a lawyer. Will I have to pay to be represented by the Public Defender's Office?

You might, but only to the extent you have the ability to pay. The LA County Public Defender’s Office will represent you regardless of whether you can pay for our services and will never ask for money as a precondition of our help.

When your case ends, if you have been represented by appointed counsel such as the Public Defender’s Office and were convicted of a crime, the judge may conduct a hearing to determine whether you have the present ability to pay all — or a portion of — the costs of your court-appointed attorney. If you cannot afford to pay, you will not be required to do so.

What is the Alternate Public Defender? What is a Bar Panel lawyer?

Sometimes, our office is unable to represent a defendant because we have a conflict of interest. For example, if two defendants are charged with the same crime, we can only represent one of them.

Because our office is not always able to accept representation of a particular defendant, the County of Los Angeles has established the “Alternate” Public Defender’s Office, an office with separate management and separate attorneys who can represent these defendants.

When both the Alternate Public Defender and the Public Defender cannot represent a defendant because of a conflict of interest, the court then appoints a separate attorney from a list of available private attorneys to represent that defendant.

What is the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony?

In California, criminal offenses are divided into less serious offenses and more serious offenses. Less serious offenses are known as misdemeanors. More serious offenses are known as felonies. An example of a misdemeanor offense might be trespassing. An example of a felony offense might be residential burglary.

Generally speaking, most felony offenses carry substantially greater potential punishment and more severe collateral consequences than misdemeanor offenses. For these reasons, felony cases are often more complicated and may take longer to resolve than misdemeanor cases.

What happens when someone is charged with a misdemeanor?

A misdemeanor is defined as a crime that is punishable by a maximum of a fine and/or imprisonment in a County jail for 364 days.

As in most criminal cases, a misdemeanor case begins when a police report alleging illegal acts is presented to the District Attorney or to a City Prosecutor who decides to file misdemeanor charges against the defendant. The prosecutor will file a complaint in criminal court, and set a date for the defendant’s first appearance.

If you are aware of a pending court date, it is extremely important that you appear in court on the day and time specified. Failure to appear will result in the issuance of a warrant and possible

Once a case has been filed, the first step in the process is the arraignment. The arraignment is where the defendant first appears in court, is informed of the charges, and enters a plea. The attorney who handles misdemeanor arraignments in that particular court will discuss the case with you, and a plea will be entered. The usual pleas are “not guilty,” “guilty,” or “no contest.”

In misdemeanor cases that are not likely to go to trial, it is not unusual, if you consent, for your attorney to settle the case on your behalf at arraignment.

If the case does not settle at arraignment, another court date will be set for the trial or, more commonly, for a pre-trial date, if more work needs to be done to prepare your defense.

Remember, the prosecutor has filed the case because they are ready to proceed to trial. You and your attorney, on the other hand, may need more time to prepare your case because your attorney not only has to prepare your defense, but also must investigate and try to disprove the claims made by the police and other witnesses against you.

Once your attorney is ready to proceed to trial, a trial date will be set and a trial will be held. At the trial, 12 jurors will be selected. The prosecutor will try to prove to the jury that you are guilty of the charged offenses and your attorney will defend you. At the conclusion of the case, the jury will decide whether the prosecutor has proven the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.

All 12 jurors must agree in order to either convict or acquit. If the jury cannot agree, a “mistrial” will be declared by the court, and the case may be tried again before a different jury, it may be dismissed or a case settlement may be agreed by the prosecution and the defense.

If a defendant is found guilty, the judge will then impose a sentence. The possible range of sentence, which is set by various laws, may range from no jail and probation, to imprisonment in the state prison. Sentencing can be a very complex process, depending on the severity of the crime for which the defendant has just been convicted.

What happens when someone is charged with a felony?

A felony is any offense punishable by more than 364 days in county jail or (only in the case of special circumstance murder) by death.
As with misdemeanors, a felony prosecution begins when a police report is presented to the District Attorney’s Office, which then decides to file felony charges against a defendant.

After a defendant has been charged with a felony, the first step in the criminal court process is called an arraignment. Usually, this is the first time the defendant appears in court. He is informed of the charges, and is offered legal representation if he cannot afford to hire a private attorney. The defendant then enters a plea of guilty or not guilty. Most often, this is also the time when the defendant has his or her first contact with the Public Defender’s Office.

The attorney who handles arraignments in that particular court will discuss the case briefly with the defendant. Ordinarily, the Deputy Public Defender will enter a plea of “not guilty” on behalf of the client. (If a case is particularly complex or unusual, a plea might not be entered at the first appearance, but might be entered at a later date in order to allow the attorney time to gather more information about the charges.) If a “not guilty” plea is entered at this first appearance, the case will then be scheduled for a “preliminary hearing” which is usually set no later than 10 court days after the arraignment.

The preliminary hearing is a court proceeding at which the District Attorney’s Office must present enough evidence to convince a judge that there is evidence that a specific crime has been committed — and that the accused is the person who committed the crime.

This hearing is in front of a judge, not a jury. The purpose of the preliminary hearing is to weed out charges unsupported by the evidence. The prosecution may use police officers to present the statements of victims and witnesses to demonstrate to the judge that there is enough evidence to justify sending the case to a court for trial. At this hearing, the prosecution’s case does not have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Because the amount of evidence required at these hearings is low, the vast majority of cases are not dismissed by the judge after the preliminary hearing.
If the defendant’s case was not dismissed at the preliminary hearing, the case then moves to a trial court where the defendant is once again arraigned. However, this time a trial date is set. Generally speaking, the trial is set to occur within 60 days from the date of this new arraignment, although felony cases frequently require more time so that the defense can conduct a complete, independent investigation, interview witnesses, consult with expert witnesses, and prepare to challenge the evidence presented by the District Attorney.

The defense attorney may also make various motions in order to get the case dismissed on legal grounds, such as a motion to get evidence thrown out of court because the police acted improperly when seizing this evidence, or a motion to dismiss because the evidence presented at the preliminary hearing was not strong enough to warrant a trial. The defense might also make motions to force the District Attorney or the police to disclose evidence, which could prove that the client is not guilty of the charge.

While the case is ongoing, the defendant may decide he or she does not want to go to trial but wants to settle the matter. Just as often, a District Attorney might offer the defendant a case settlement, referred to as a “plea bargain,” to plead guilty to a less serious charge or agree to ask for reduced incarceration time at sentencing.

Settlement may occur at any time, from the first court appearance at the initial arraignment up to, and even during, trial. Case settlement usually involves the defendant pleading “guilty” or ‘no contest” for an agreed sentence or to an agreed-upon charge.

If the case does not settle, an adult criminal defendant has the right to a trial by jury. A trial is where 12 jurors, listen to all the evidence presented by both the prosecution and the defense and decide whether the prosecution has proven the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge’s job at a jury trial is to make sure that both the prosecution and the defense adhere to all the rules of evidence when presenting their case to the jury.

All 12 jurors must agree in order to either convict or acquit a defendant. If the jury cannot agree, a “mistrial” will be declared by the court, and the case may either be tried again before a different jury, dismissed or a case settlement may be agreed by the prosecution and the defense.

If a defendant is found guilty, the judge will then impose a sentence. The possible range of sentence, which is set by various laws, may range from no jail and probation, to imprisonment in the state prison. Sentencing can be a very complex process, depending on the severity of the crime for which the defendant has just been convicted.

In the most serious of cases, referred to as special circumstance murder prosecutions, the defendant faces a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, or even the death penalty. If a defendant has been convicted of such an offense, then there is a separate proceeding, called a penalty phase, at which both sides present evidence either in aggravation or mitigation of penalty. The jury determines the appropriate penalty. If the jury determines that the defendant should be executed, the judge still has the power to overrule that determination and to sentence the defendant to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. However, if the jury agrees that life imprisonment is the appropriate punishment, the judge does not have the power to impose the death penalty.

Defendants who have been convicted after a trial have the right to appeal their conviction. This process is started by the trial attorney who, upon request of the client, will file a notice of appeal in the trial court within 60 days of the imposition of sentence. A lawyer who specializes in appeals will then be appointed by the Court of Appeal to represent the defendant on appeal.

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How do I find out if there is a bench warrant for my arrest?

Call the Public Defender’s Office where your case is pending. (Click here for a list of our offices.) Give our staff your case number, or if you can’t remember it, provide your full name and date of birth. Ordinarily, that information will be enough to allow our staff to determine whether there is a warrant for your arrest. Arrangements can then be made through your attorney to accompany you to court to deal with the warrant. It is better to work with your attorney to handle a bench warrant than to ignore the warrant and take your chances on being arrested and jailed.

What do I do if there is a bench warrant for my arrest?

Contact an attorney so that you can make arrangements to come to court to deal with the warrant. (Click here for a list of our offices.) It is far better to do that than to take chances on being arrested on the warrant and then jailed. It would also be helpful to be able to explain why you failed to appear in court. If there is any written record (such as a letter from your doctor or your employer) which may help to explain your absence, the judge might consider giving you another chance rather than putting you into custody.

Perhaps the best way to think of the consequences of failing to appear in court is that when you fail to show up for a scheduled court date, this is often interpreted by the court as your showing disrespect for the judge, the court and the entire legal process. Show up in court on the right day and at the right time, and everything will go much smoother for you in court.

My English is limited. How can I get an interpreter to assist me or my witnesses?

An interpreter will be made available not only for interviews and consultations, but also for court proceedings and during investigations. A substantial number of our attorneys, clerical staff and investigators are fluent in Spanish. If you need an interpreter for a language other than Spanish, it is important that you inform your lawyer as much in advance as possible. Occasionally, it is helpful to use a family member who speaks some English to help make clear exactly which language and dialect is spoken by the person who needs assistance. Afterward, an official court interpreter — one who is familiar with court terminology — will be obtained for whichever language or dialect is needed for you to be able to clearly communicate and understand everything that is going on in your case.

Who is eligible for drug treatment within the criminal justice system under Proposition 36?

There are a variety of ways to get drug treatment when a person is charged with a crime. Los Angeles County has drug courts, in which people who are addicted to drugs can enroll in an intensive drug treatment program, without having to plead guilty or go to trial. Successful completion of such programs results in dismissal of the case. Proposition 36 requires the state to offer drug treatment instead of incarceration if a person is convicted of certain drug possession offenses or drug use offenses. Under some circumstances, a person who is convicted of certain crimes and is addicted to drugs can be committed to the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) for drug treatment.

Will the Public Defender's Office represent me if I want to appeal my conviction?

Generally, the Public Defender’s Office will not handle cases on appeal. However, should you choose to appeal, you can request the appointment of appellate counsel by the court to assist you in the appeals process. Upon request of the client, the Deputy Public Defender who represented the defendant will file the documents in the trial court necessary to start the appellate process and to obtain the appointment of appellate counsel.

Will the Public Defender represent me in a habeas corpus proceeding?

A writ of habeas corpus is an order directing authorities to bring the defendant before a court to determine whether keeping the defendant in custody is legal or not. It is also a way of challenging the constitutionality of a conviction.

If a habeas corpus petition needs to be filed in a pending case that is already being handled by our office, the Public Defender will certainly do so. However, the Public Defender may also agree to file a petition for writ of habeas corpus for a person after conviction, particularly in cases where the validity of the conviction itself is in issue or where it appears that a person is being unlawfully detained in custody.

I want to hire a private detective to talk to witnesses in my case, but I cannot afford to do so. Does the Public Defender's Office have investigators who can look for evidence that will help me?

The Office of the Public Defender has a staff of highly trained and experienced investigators. Their job is to track down any witnesses and obtain any physical evidence that might prove a client’s innocence or demonstrate a weakness in the prosecutor’s case against the client. They may also take photographs, draw diagrams, locate appropriate expert witnesses, and otherwise help with the logistics of presenting a defense. These individuals are also quite skilled in interviewing anyone who may have an impact on the outcome of a client’s case.

Quite frequently, it is due to the work by a dedicated Public Defender investigator that an innocent client is released from custody. Other times that work helps to obtain lighter sentences for individuals who have been convicted.

I know my attorney can't repeat anything I say to him in confidence. But how can I be sure that what I say to a Public Defender investigator or paralegal will be kept confidential?

The attorney-client privilege concerns the confidential communication between lawyer and client which cannot be disclosed to anyone without the consent of the client. This same privilege extends to all employees of the Public Defender’s Office.

One of my family members has been charged in a very serious felony case. After meeting his attorney, we were told to speak with a paralegal about the case. What is a paralegal and why should we talk to this person?

A paralegal is a legal assistant who has been trained to assist an attorney in a variety of tasks which do not involve the actual practice of law. Paralegals can work in any area of law, from civil litigation to corporate finance or entertainment law. In order for a paralegal to work for the Public Defender’s Office, he or she must first complete a course of study with a recognized school for paralegal studies and obtain a paralegal certificate, or meet certain other minimum requirements.

Like attorneys who wish to work for the Public Defender’s Office, each paralegal candidate must submit to a rigorous interview and oral examination to ascertain whether he or she has the intellectual ability, the legal knowledge and the commitment to work on behalf of defendants who have been charged with serious crimes. Similar to attorneys, they are further required to take additional training throughout their careers, so that they may better serve the needs of the client. In their assignments as legal assistants, paralegals are charged with doing legal research and writing, conducting client and witness interviews, as well as assisting the attorney with trial preparation.

Our paralegals have been trained to effectively interview the client and family, and also gather any positive evidence such as community support and employer recommendations which can be presented to the jury at trial. A paralegal may also prepare a social history of the client’s life, so that the court may consider all aspects of the background and upbringing before pronouncing sentence.

Will the Public Defender’s Office help me sue?

No. The LA Public Defender’s mandate is to represent indigent defendants in Los Angeles criminal cases. Consequently, we are unable to represent plaintiffs or defendants in civil lawsuits.

What involvement does the Public Defender have in correcting miscarriages of justice arising out of police or prosecution misconduct?

Los Angeles County Public Defender attorneys assigned to the Public Integrity Assurance Section (PIAS) review cases involving Los Angeles County Public Defender clients who may have been unjustly convicted because of the actions of corrupt police officers. When attorneys from the Public Integrity Assurance Section learn of these cases, they take appropriate legal action in order to correct these injustices. If you believe that you, or someone you know, was unjustly convicted because of the actions of corrupt police officers, please contact our PIAS Unit at (213) 893-2398.

I need a lawyer to help me in a civil case (like divorce, landlord/tenant dispute, debt payment, bankruptcy, child custody, personal injury action). Does the Public Defender handle that type of case?

In general, the Public Defender only represents people subject to criminal prosecution, civil commitment or contempt citation. The Public Defender’s Office also represents individuals charged in criminal cases resulting from non-payment of child support, or those who are threatened with contempt because of an alleged violation of a civil court order for them to pay child support. Our office also represents those individuals who have been detained civilly because of the Sexually Violent Predator Law. In all other cases, the Public Defender does not represent individuals in civil cases, nor can our Office recommend any particular attorney or law firm.

The State Bar of California provides a certified lawyer referral service. The State Bar is located at 1149 South Hill Street, Los Angeles, CA 90015-2299, (213) 765-1000, and at 180 Howard Street, San Francisco, CA 94105-1639, (415) 538-2000. The State Bar’s web site is located at http://www.calbar.ca.gov

The telephone book’s Yellow Pages often contain a directory of local bar associations that offer lawyer referral services. Many lawyer referral services do require the payment of a small fee for an initial consultation with a lawyer. For example, the Los Angeles County Bar Association (LACBA) offers a lawyer referral service and is located at 1055 W. 7th Street, Suite 2700, Los Angeles, CA 90017, (213) 627-2727. LACBA’s web site is located at http://www.lacba.org.

For those unable to afford a lawyer in a civil case, free help from a legal aid society, a nonprofit public interest organization, such as those concerned with civil liberties and housing discrimination, or from a law school “clinic” program may be available.

I am applying for a new job. How can I get a past conviction taken off my record?

Under California law, many charges can be reduced, dismissed or expunged. Removing these old convictions from your record may help you get a job, find housing, or avoid future problems with law enforcement. The best way to find out if any portion of your old record can cleared is to contact the LA County Public Defender’s Office and ask for help clearing your record. Intake forms asking for assistance in clearing old convictions off your record are also available on our website. (Click here for a list of our offices.) (Click here to visit our Prop 47 site, which includes upcoming events for free record-clearing.)

I would like to volunteer to work in the Public Defender’s Office. How do I go about doing that?

The Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office provides college and high school volunteer programs. Volunteer college students are selected from those students who have an interest in the legal field. Assignments given to college students are matched with their abilities.

The Public Defender’s Office has a commitment to teach high school students the role of the Public Defender in the criminal justice system and in the community. To that end, the Public Defender’s Office works with students from many high schools, including those enrolled in law magnet schools because those students have demonstrated interest in the legal arena.

Applications for college and high school volunteer programs may be made by submitting a letter setting forth your educational background, interest, and experience addressed to: Volunteer Coordinator, Office of the Los Angeles County Public Defender, 210 West Temple Street, 19th Floor, Los Angeles, California 90012.

I am a law student. Does the Public Defender have a law clerk/internship program?

Click here for information regarding the Public Defender Law Clerk Program.

Instructions, qualifications, and applications for the Senior Law Clerk Program, Exam Number L9242A, may be downloaded from http://hr.lacounty.gov.

I have just graduated from law school and am studying for the California State Bar exam. How do I apply for a position as an attorney at the Public Defender’s Office?

The requirements for employment as an attorney are as follows:

  • You must be a citizen of the United States (resident alien status does not qualify).
  • You must be currently licensed to practice law in the state of California.
  • You must take a Civil Service Exam for the position. The exam is graded in three categories:
    • The applicant’s communication skills.
    • The applicant’s understanding of the role of the Public Defender.
    • The applicant’s legal knowledge.

The Civil Service Examination is an interview with two senior attorneys within the Office. The interview lasts approximately 30 minutes and usually involves the use of two hypothetical situations that an attorney might encounter in his/her work. The hypos usually involve ethics and evidence but are not limited to those topics. Your score is the average of the scores assigned by the two interviewers.

We conduct job interviews throughout most of the year. To determine whether interviews are being conducted, call our Human Resources Division at (213) 974-2821. In order to obtain an interview date, you must complete an application form. (A copy of the form is available for download by clicking here.) PLEASE NOTE: the application form must be completed and be filed in person in the Public Defender’s Personnel Office located at 210 West Temple Street, 19thFloor, Los Angeles, CA 90012. (If you reside a great distance from Los Angeles, please call our Personnel Office at 213-974-2821.) You must present two copies of your resume and a copy of your Bar membership card. (If you have been admitted to the Bar, but have not yet received your membership card, you must provide your membership number.) You will then be given an interview date. (For information on Public Defender Clerkship programs click here.)