Vail Daily column: What is a public defender?
Even if not by name, you are likely familiar with the Miranda warning. Trust me.
It goes like this:
“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney, and to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at government expense.”
There are variations, but the foregoing is the essence of it.
See, I told you so. You knew it all along.
Keep your eye on this last part, the “if you can’t afford a lawyer, one will be provided” part. We’ll come back to that in just a sec.
First, though, who or what is a “Miranda”? Well, “Miranda” was a real honest-to-goodness “who” rather than a “what.”
The story of Ernesto Miranda goes this way:
In 1963, Ernesto Miranda (whose name has since become a verb as you will see, below) was accused of kidnapping and raping an 18-year-old, mentally disabled woman. He was identified, arrested, and brought in for questioning. During the interrogation, he confessed to the crime. He was not, however, informed of his Constitutional right to remain silent nor of his right to an attorney.
At trial, Miranda’s lawyer tried to get the confession thrown out, but the motion was denied. Miranda was convicted and promptly thrown in the local pokey.
In 1966, the case came before of the United States Supreme Court as Miranda v. Arizona. The question before the court was, having not been informed of his rights, was the confession admissible against him? The court ruled that the statements made to the police could not be used as evidence since Miranda had not been properly advised.
Since then, before any material questioning of a suspect is undertaken, law enforcement has been required to recite the Miranda warning. This has come to be known as being “Mirandized,” thus the “verbification” of Ernesto Miranda’s surname.
So back to what I asked you to keep your eye on, the “if you can’t afford a lawyer, one will be provided” part of the Miranda warning. That is, at last, where the public defender enters this story from stage left.
Simply, the term public defender is used to refer to a lawyer appointed to represent a criminally accused who cannot afford to hire an attorney.
In Colorado, the Office of the State Public Defender is comprised of 21 regional trial offices. The system also has a centralized appellate office that handles felony appeals from every jurisdiction in the state, as well as a centralized state administrative office.
The system employs 410 lawyers and a total staff of 650. For fiscal year 2012, the office’s operating budget is approximately $61 million, which will support an estimated 134,000 cases carried this year by the public defender’s regional trial offices and appellate office.
The job of a public defender is simply (however, complex execution of that job may be) to provide zealous and effective representation for indigent individuals who are charged with the commission of a crime in Colorado in recognition that the right to counsel is established by both the United States and Colorado Constitutions.
The regional office for Eagle County (which, along with Lake, Summit and Clear Creek Counties comprises the 5th Judicial District) is located in Dillon.
If you have been charged with a crime (whether a felony or misdemeanor), you have a right (and perhaps an obligation to yourself) to be represented by competent counsel. A criminal conviction – even for a misdemeanor – can have lifelong consequences beyond whatever sentence may be imposed by a court. As such, there are many things to think about before deciding whether to plead guilty, accept a plea to a lesser offense, or take your case to trial.
The public defender serves a vital Constitutional function. Simply, it ensures that every person accused of a crime is adequately represented and “justice” is not dictated solely by one’s economic circumstances.
As the United States Supreme Court observed in another seminal case, the case of Gideon v. Wainwright:
The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours.
The right to counsel remains one of our most precious guarantees. In part, the public defender ensures the right is afforded to all, regardless of one’s economic circumstances.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECOTV 18 as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his e-mail addresses, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.