What can I do if my public defender isn't fairly representing me?
February 18, 2012 8:19 PM   Subscribe

I'm the defendant in a legal case and am being represented by a public defender. I feel I am not being represented fairly. My hearing is next week. What should I do?

I am the defendant in a harassment case . I am unemployed and broke, so I had to opt for a public defender to represent me. I feel like I'm not being sufficiently represented and want to know what I can do about it. I'd like to avoid going to jail.

I understand that a public defender's office is probably overwhelmed, but this is getting a little ridiculous. My attorney hasn't shared much of the prosecutors' stuff with me and I haven't even been able to read the police reports of what they are alleging that I did. To top it off, these events transpired just before the holidays in November, and these two charges (in addition to the original one for which I was already arrested and jailed) were just recently presented to my and my attorney.

To make matters more complicated, the events of this case are among what my mental health providers are saying has all the signs of a manic episode. I have no history of being bipolar, but I do have a long history of depression. I was hospitalized for this around the same time.

At my last court appearance, when we were first presented with these additional charges, my attorney suggested that it would likely be best to have the case go through the mental health court here in Seattle. I agree with that idea since I know I would never in my right mind do something like what has been alleged. (I didn't hurt anyone. I didn't even harass anyone. I basically just inadvertently creeped my neighbor out.)

What can I do about this? I'm really at a loss. I'm fucked. For one, the court agreed to continue the case until March 9 and then I just got notices in the mail that I am to appear next Friday instead. I tried to contact my attorney and got an auto-responder back saying that she will be out of the office until the 27th.

What should I do?

[Happy to answer any follow-up questions.]
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (12 answers total)
Does the auto-response email have a phone number or name of a person to contact who's handling matters for the public defender in her absence?
posted by palliser at 8:32 PM on February 18, 2012

I suggest calling CLEAR. They operate in Seattle and will try to get you free legal help since you're low income. We have a similar program in my area and it's been able to help people in your situation. Assistance could range from consuling on how to get a better defender/delay the hearing to getting someone to defend you pro bono. http://nwjustice.org/get-legal-help
posted by michaelh at 8:36 PM on February 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would definitely tell your attorney to do whatever she can to get you into the mental health court. The referral can be made by a defense attorney. It's for cases exactly like yours, where whatever happened is due to the symptoms of a mental illness. In fact, on Monday morning I would suggest that you call your local NAMI and ask if they know of attorneys who have experience handling cases with the mental health court and if they can give you any other information that will help you. (I work for NAMI and our affiliate has this info.) Here is the website for the Seattle Mental Health Court.

I know several people who were arrested during manic episodes (doing things they would never normally do) and have successfully completed the Mental Health Court and had their records expunged.

Best wishes.
posted by la petite marie at 8:57 PM on February 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

You're going to want to visit a lawyer that isn't a public defender. An initial consultation should be free (I'm not a lawyer, but the times I have used them this has been the case). Don't be afraid to ask how much this will cost you. It might not be as bad as you think. How much money can you get together on one place at one time?

I had to use a lawyer and he seemed incredibly disengaged, but at the end of the day he did a great job. I know this is incredibly important to you, but remember, your lawyer has probably done this a lot. If he feels he's on top of things he may very well be, but he should be able to explain this to you.

Also, police reports should be public record. You should be able to read your arrest report just by stopping by the police station (I think).
posted by cjorgensen at 9:24 PM on February 18, 2012

Please know that I am NOT a lawyer. But I am a paralegal who works with a mental health court, though not in Seattle. I certainly feel positive about mental health court, but for ours at least, you would have to plead guilty (usually to a lesser charge than is in the original complaint) before you can officially join the program. This is agreed upon by the defense and the prosecutor's office. Sometimes the defendant's record will be expunged after successful completion of the program, but not always. You will really need to talk to your lawyer about this. I encourage you to find out who is covering your attorney's cases while she is out--if you call the public defender's office, they should be able to tell you.
posted by mlle valentine at 9:25 PM on February 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

(Again, not a lawyer, not in Seattle, but I do some work with Freedom of Information Law, and don't think you'd be able to see the police report, because it's an open investigation and I believe there are restrictions on that, generally speaking. May be different if you are the defendant though.)
posted by mlle valentine at 9:27 PM on February 18, 2012

If you want to have your question anonymized, you can ask via the contact form at the bottom right corner of this page.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:36 PM on February 18, 2012

Best answer: Uhm, yeah, you DO get to see the police report, but no, you can't just go to the cops and ask for it. Your attorney has an obligation to provide full discovery to you if you ask for it, minus any material that they may be required to redact through their discovery agreements with the prosecutor's office (for instance, in Oregon, I can't give my clients the confidential information for victims, such as phone number, SS number, etc.)

The tension in your case likely comes from the fact that your attorney has figured you're doing mental health court, and is no longer thinking of you as a client that they need to prep for trial or do the same level of work for. Not saying that's fair, but it's likely the box that you're in.

Here's the thing: it's your attorney's job to represent you. It's your job to make a stink about it if you don't believe you are being represented adequately, or if you and your attorney have a fundamental disagreement about the direction a case should go. If you are unhappy with your attorney, you can request a new one (try the public defender's office itself first, and if that doesn't work, then the next time you're in court with your attorney, tell your attorney you want to make a request for a different one and that you want it brought up in court.)

I have no idea how the mental health court thing works. It sounds like a treatment court, where potentially they defer or dismiss the charge if you complete the treatment? Many times, treatment courts require an early entry of plea. But your attorney still has a duty to make sure you're making a voluntary and conscious choice, which means he or she needs to go over the full case with you first and make sure this is the option you want.

Disclaimer: I'm not your lawyer. You have a lawyer, and you need to get advice from him or her, or consult another lawyer in your jurisdiction. There are good public defenders and bad ones. There are good private attorneys and bad ones. Be assertive about what you want, regardless of who represents you.
posted by Happydaz at 9:44 PM on February 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

Happydaz is completely right about the report--you need to go through your attorney to see it, can't walk into the police station, that's all. I am sorry to have given the wrong impression.
posted by mlle valentine at 9:47 PM on February 18, 2012

IANAL, but I am a victim in a criminal case where the perpetrator, a none-too-bright drug addicted habitual felon, is represented by a public defender. He has churned through SIX public defenders since the preliminary hearing in July (largely, I'm told, because he won't plea, despite it being pretty open-and-shut; the case will now go to trial). If he can do it, you can.
posted by dhartung at 11:37 PM on February 18, 2012

No phone calls. Go to your attorney's office in person and tell them you are there to look at your file. You have the full right to see it and review it. That will not take any of the attorney's or paralegal's time. You will not be able to take it out of there.
posted by megatherium at 4:27 AM on February 19, 2012

Mod note: From the OP:
Thanks for the advice everyone. The more I know, the better.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 7:51 PM on February 19, 2012

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