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Is Retaining a Public Defender a Viable Option?

Interviewer: What is the good and the bad of trying to defend yourself without a lawyer? How about public defenders versus private lawyers?

Ron Mondello: I have addressed the issue of defending yourself without a lawyer and quite frankly it’s silly. In fact, many judges will not allow your case to proceed unless you have an attorney. I have been a public defender in many municipalities throughout New Jersey. You will find that there are many good public defenders. However, you must understand that a public defender has a very large load of cases to handle. Unquestionably, he cannot spend the same amount of time that a private attorney can spend on your case.

On the other hand, understand that you may in fact get the same result with the public defender as opposed to a private attorney. That statement is very fact sensitive and of course depends on what occurred in your case. Most of the court’s charge a relatively small amount of money for the assistance of the public defender. But in order to secure the public defender you must be indigent. Although the qualifications change based on whether you are single, married, and have children, a rough estimate is that you would not be eligible for a public defender if you are single and make more than $200 a week. I do believe the forms are available online.

No One is Entitled to a Public Defender at a DMV Hearing.

Interviewer: I’ve heard public defenders are super busy and cannot even go to motor vehicle hearings to protect my license?

Ron Mondello: Public defenders are employed by the town. They cannot and will not go to a motor vehicle commission hearing. You would not be entitled to a public defender at a motor vehicle commission hearing and you would have to hire a private attorney. What is a motor vehicle commission hearing? These are typically hearings before an employee of the motor vehicle commission to determine whether or not to suspend your license for a particular violation and for how long.

By way of example, if you have received too many points on your driver’s license and you receive a notice from the motor vehicle commission that your license is to be suspended, you can request a hearing. The hearing officer will listen to you and decide whether or not you should be given a second chance or more lenient license suspension. I have found over the years that a motor vehicle commission hearing officer is trying to figure out if you are a maniac driver and likely to kill somebody on the road. I have found them to be more than reasonable and compassionate.