Each of the 20 judicial circuits in Florida has a separate Office of the Public Defender. These offices represent indigent persons charged with a criminal offense. Public Defenders also represent persons facing civil commitment under the Baker Act and the Jimmy Ryce Act. In some jurisdictions Public Defenders also represent persons in civil non-support actions. Public Defenders provide zealous and effective representation to persons who cannot afford to hire an attorney.
Each Office of the Public Defender is headed by an elected Public Defender who is a constitutional officer of the State of Florida. The Public Defender is an attorney and a member of The Florida Bar. The Public Defender is elected to office for a four-year term. The Public Defender employs attorneys, known as Assistant Public Defenders.
An Assistant Public Defender will represent you and will work with investigators, witness interviewers, and legal assistants on your case. In some Public Defender Offices, third-year law students and law school graduates not yet admitted to The Florida Bar may also work with the Public Defender's Office. These individuals are called legal interns.
The Public Defender's Office keeps up with all new developments in the law. As part of continuing legal education, the Public Defender holds in-house training classes for all employees and sends attorneys and other employees to outside training programs.
In order to be represented by the Public Defender, you must complete a financial affidavit to determine if you qualify for our services. The Public Defender only represents people who are indigent as defined in Florida law. All persons charged with a crime who face jail time are entitled to representation by an attorney. A judge can appoint the Public Defender to represent a person who has income that is equal to or less than 200% of the current federal poverty guidelines, or who is unable to pay for the services of a private attorney without substantial hardship to his family, If you are found to be indigent by the court you will qualify for the services of the Public Defender. Please note that in misdemeanor and criminal traffic cases the judge does not always appoint the Public Defender to represent you even if you are indigent. If an "order of no imprisonment" is filed in your misdemeanor or criminal traffic case, the judge does not have to appoint the Public Defender. This means that if you cannot pay for your own lawyer, you will not have an attorney representing you.
If arrested and booked into jail, you will appear before a judge within 24 hours of your arrest. The judge will first advise you of the charge(s) for which you have been arrested. The judge then will decide if the police had sufficient legal reasons - called probable cause - to arrest you. You should not make statements about your case at this hearing. The judge will ask you if you wish to be represented by an attorney and, if so, whether you intend to hire private counsel. If you are financially unable to hire your own lawyer, you will need to complete an application form which includes a financial affidavit. The court will also charge you a $50 application fee. The Clerk of Court will then decide if you qualify for the services of the Public Defender's Office. The $50 application fee must be paid within 7 days of the date you signed the application form. If the Clerk determines that you do not qualify for the services of the Public Defender, you can ask the judge to review that decision.
Only the court can appoint the Public Defender's Office to represent you after the clerk or the court has made a determination that you are indigent. Unless you are acquitted or your charges are all dismissed, the services of the Public Defender are not free. If you are sentenced, the court will make payment of an attorney's fee a condition of your sentence, or the court can impose a lien in the public record for these services.
Bail is intended to guarantee that you will appear for your scheduled court appearance. You have a very limited right to bail in capital cases and cases carrying a life sentence. Cases with limited right to bond may include murder, sexual battery, kidnapping, burglary or robbery. To set your bail, or to lower the amount of your bail, the judge must be convinced you will be in court when notified to be there and that you pose no threat to the alleged victim or the community at large. The court may ask you several questions, such as how long you have lived in the area, whether you have family in the area, whether you are working, whether you have been allowed out on bail before and appeared in court when required, and whether or not you have a criminal record.
If the court finds you are not a threat to public safety if released, that you will appear when required in court, or that you have a responsible person in the community who will guarantee your appearance in court, the judge has the option of releasing you without bail. This is called release on your own recognizance (ROR). Some jurisdictions also have pre-trial release programs which allow you to be released but require that you report in to a counselor and may require you to participate in drug tests, alcohol checks, or counseling while your case is pending. Talk to your attorney about the pre-trial release options in your area.
If you cannot make the original bail, your Assistant Public Defender may file a motion for reduction of bail if your bail seems too high in view of the charge or if the evidence against you is weak. Remember, you do not have a right to multiple bond hearings unless there are significant changes in circumstances. Not being able to make the previously set bond is not a significant change in circumstances.
The Public Defender's Office cannot represent you until a judge appoints us to do so. Once appointed, we will interview you and get a copy of the charges against you. This all takes time. Each case is different. Complicated cases naturally take longer than other cases. An extra month or two in jail may save you from years in prison. Your attorney must be thoroughly prepared before he or she can go into court for you. If you do not understand why your case is taking so long to prepare, talk to your attorney. Your attorney will explain the reasons to you.
Your attorney may file discovery motions to get witness lists, police reports, witnesses' statements, reports of experts and all other important facts in your case. Discovery depositions and other statements given under oath may be taken from witnesses. You are encouraged to assist in the preparation of your defense. One of the most significant ways you can assist in your defense is by providing your lawyer the names and addresses of witnesses who can testify to circumstances that may prove you are not guilty or help show that the crime was not as serious as the State contends. You and your family should not contact the alleged victim or witnesses listed by the State. It is the attorney's job to contact the alleged victim and State witnesses.
Your attorney also may talk with the prosecutor to get some idea of the prosecutors' intentions in your case. The prosecutor may decide to offer a "plea bargain," meaning that they may agree to drop a charge, reduce a charge or lower a sentence in exchange for a plea of guilty or nolo contendere (no contest). If the prosecutor offers you a plea bargain, your attorney is required to tell you about it even if you have said you want a trial. Your attorney telling you what the prosecutor offered does not mean your attorney agrees with the prosecutor.
If you are unhappy with the way your case is being handled, you should talk to your attorney first. If you are still not satisfied, state your complaint specifically in writing and mail it to the Public Defender. ALL LETTERS TO YOUR ATTORNEY SHOULD BE MARKED "CONFIDENTIAL ATTORNEY-CLIENT COMMUNICATION."
Without your permission, confidential information cannot be revealed to the prosecutor or anyone else, including your friends and family.
Anything you tell a Public Defender's employee or intern, or anything you tell your attorney, is confidential. However, conversations you have with other people are NOT confidential. These people include your spouse, family, friends, other inmates, news reporters, probation officers, or police officers. You should not talk to these people about your case or about anything your attorney tells you. DO NOT TALK ON THE JAIL PHONES ABOUT YOUR CASE. YOUR CALLS ARE BEING RECORDED AND PROVIDED TO THE STATE ATTORNEY. The State Attorney DOES listen to the calls and WILL use anything you say against you.
The first person from the Public Defender's Office you will see may be either an Assistant Public Defender, a witness interviewer, an investigator or a legal intern. Even though the interviewer may not be an attorney, the information you give is CONFIDENTIAL and will be given to your attorney. You will be asked a number of questions. It is important to cooperate fully and answer all questions truthfully.
If you are released from jail before you have been interviewed, you need to call and schedule an appointment at the Public Defender's office as soon as possible. Remember, it is your duty to call and schedule an appointment so your attorney can begin working on your case.
The attorneys of the Public Defender's staff make regular visits to the jail. Your attorney will meet with you when necessary, but cannot meet with you every time he or she is there. You should request a jail visit only when it is important that you and your attorney meet in person. If telephones are available at the jail, a phone call will often solve your problem if it is not a confidential matter. In some jails, even your calls to your attorney may be recorded. Do not discuss the facts of your case or other confidential matters on the phone. Certain offices may also use video conferencing to make contact with you at the jail. Video conferencing consists of talking with your attorney through a video and phone line. These communications are also confidential. REMEMBER, DO NOT DISCUSS THE FACTS OF YOUR CASE WITH ANYONE ON THE TELEPHONE OR WHERE OTHER PEOPLE CAN HEAR YOU.
Only the people in charge of the jail can decide if your friends and relatives can visit you. Questions about food, clothing, medical treatment and medicine should also be directed to the people in charge of the jail.
It is important that you cooperate with your attorney and with your attorney's investigator. Your attorney and the investigator must know the truth even if the truth makes you look guilty, makes you think you are guilty, or if in fact you may be guilty. If you are completely honest with your attorney, he or she will not be caught off guard and will be able to better represent you.
You can help the investigation of your case by providing the names and addresses of witnesses. If you are out of jail, you can help your case by finding witnesses and notifying your attorney by sending a letter, calling in, or coming to the office with the names and addresses of those witnesses. If you are in jail, try to have your family and friends find witnesses. A witness may be anyone who can testify to any circumstances which may show you are not guilty or which may tend to show that the crime was not as serious as the prosecutor claims. Our investigator may interview the witnesses against you and try to locate defense witnesses. Accurate names and addresses are helpful. You should not, however, contact witnesses for the prosecution, the alleged victim, or send other people to talk to the witnesses or the victim for you. If you do, you may be charged with a new crime of tampering with witnesses.
Once the preparation of your case is complete, your attorney will update you on all of the facts, and explain available defenses as well as legal options. Your attorney will also explain possible sentences if you plead guilty or are found guilty at trial.
Rule 3.134 of the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure provides that if you are in jail, the prosecutor has 33 days from the date you are arrested to file formal charges against you. If formal charges are not filed within 33 days, your attorney may file a motion to have you released from custody. The court, on the 33rd day and with notice to the State Attorney, may order that you be released on your own recognizance on that 33rd day. The State may petition the court for an extension of time to file formal charges if they can show good cause for doing so. The extension can be for no more than 40 days from the date of your arrest. Failure to file the charges within 40 days does not mean the charges against you will be dropped. It only means that you will be released from custody if no formal charges have been filed by the 40th day. Whether to file a Rule 3.134 motion is a decision that you and your attorney should make, based on the local practices of your jurisdiction.
The State Attorney's office has the sole discretion whether to file formal charges against you. Even if witnesses don't want to testify against you or want to "drop the charges," the State Attorney may still file the charges. The law of the State of Florida gives the State Attorney this type of discretion. The State Attorney also has subpoena power to make witnesses come to court and to hold them in contempt if they fail to respond to a validly served subpoena.
After your first appearance, if the prosecutor files formal charges, an arraignment will be scheduled. The arraignment is not a trial and not a time when evidence or witnesses can be presented. At most arraignments you are informed of the charges against you, and if you do not have a lawyer the judge determines if you qualify to have the Public Defender's Office represent you. If a plea of not guilty is entered at your arraignment, in most areas of the state your case will normally be scheduled for another court date. It is seldom in your best legal interest to enter a guilty or no contest plea at arraignment because your attorney has not had sufficient time to investigate your case, to know the facts and law that apply to your case, to get to know you and to explain the charges and the law, the sentence and the potential consequences. A plea of guilty or no contest can have serious consequences (employment, immigration, military, housing, driver license and college grants and loans) in your life. Before entering such a plea, make sure to discuss with your attorney the possible consequences of your plea. To make sure you know what you are doing, and that you are making an intelligent choice, you should meet with your attorney as soon as possible after arraignment in order to decide how to proceed with your case.
After investigating your case, your attorney may file motions and ask for a court hearing. YOU SHOULD NOT FILE YOUR OWN MOTIONS. If you are represented by an attorney the law does not allow you to also file your own motions. Because you are not an attorney, you may put something in a motion that could hurt your case. If you have a matter that you want the court to know about, ask your attorney about it.
The Florida Department of Corrections operates what is called the Pre-trial Intervention Program. This program, primarily for first-time offenders, offers an alternative to formal prosecution. The program is selective and cannot accept applicants without the approval of the victim, arresting officer, prosecutor and judge. If you have no significant prior record, and are not charged with a violent crime, ask your attorney about the possibility of entry into the pre-trial intervention program. Some jurisdictions have other diversion programs available, such as drug court, mental health or veterans' courts and deferred prosecution programs. Ask your attorney about all diversion options in your area.
You must appear in court for all your court hearings unless your attorney tells you not to be in court. If you change your address while waiting to come to trial, notify the clerk of the court and your attorney immediately. It is your responsibility to keep your address current with the clerk of court and with your attorney. It is best to arrive before the time scheduled in order to discuss the case with your attorney. IT IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT THAT YOU SHOW UP TO COURT ON TIME. If you cannot appear in court on time, notify your attorney immediately. If you do not show up in court or are late for court, the judge may issue a warrant for your arrest and your right to a speedy trial may be lost. Your bond may also be revoked. You could then be locked up until your case is completed.
The law presumes you are innocent until proven guilty. You can only plead one of three ways: 1) Not Guilty; 2) Guilty; 3) Nolo Contendere, which is Latin for no contest. A not guilty plea is entered when you want more time to investigate your case and decide whether or not you want to proceed to trial.
If you plead guilty or no contest, there will not be a trial and the judge will then proceed with sentencing.
The judge decides if your plea will be accepted. This is true even if you, your attorney, and the State Attorney have negotiated a plea agreement. What sentence you get is always ultimately up to the judge.
If, after talking with your attorney, you decide to change your plea of not guilty to either guilty or nolo contendere, your attorney will explain to the court that you want to change your plea. Before accepting your plea, the judge will ask you certain questions to make sure you understand all of your rights, and that no one has pressured you into changing your plea. You alone must decide whether to change your plea, and the court wants to make sure it is solely your decision. A plea of guilty or no contest can have serious consequences (employment, immigration, military, housing, driver license, and college grants and loans) in your life. Before entering such a plea, make sure to discuss with your attorney the possible consequences of your plea.
If you enter a plea of not guilty, you will have a trial unless the charges are dismissed or you change your plea prior to trial. You and your attorney must decide whether you want a jury trial or a non-jury trial. In a jury trial, a judge presides over the courtroom proceedings, and six or more citizens from the community are chosen to hear the evidence presented against you. These citizens determine whether a crime has been committed and whether you are criminally responsible for that crime.
If you choose to have a non-jury trial, the State Attorney must also agree to a non-jury trial. In a non-jury trial, the judge alone decides whether a crime has been committed, and whether you are criminally responsible for that crime. In juvenile court there are no jury trials.
Most trials involve using a jury to decide the facts of the case. Your attorney will question the prospective jurors, and with your assistance try to select the best ones to hear your case. After both sides question the jury and the jurors are agreed upon, the actual trial begins. Each side can then make an opening statement telling the jury what the case is about. The prosecutor then presents his or her witnesses and evidence. Your attorney can cross-examine these witnesses and challenge any evidence. If the State's witnesses do not appear in court for your trial, the judge may dismiss your case, or he/she can postpone it at the request of the State Attorney. This decision is up to the judge.
After the prosecution witnesses testify, your attorney makes a motion for judgment of acquittal. This motion is usually made in all cases to see if the prosecutor presented enough evidence to show you committed the crime for which you are charged. If this motion is denied, then your attorney may present defense witnesses and evidence after which the prosecutor may offer rebuttal evidence.
You have the right to testify in your trial, but you do not have to testify. Your attorney will assist you in deciding whether to testify or not testify, but this decision is ultimately up to you. The decision as to how to best defend your case is complex and should be discussed in detail with your attorney.
After all the evidence is presented, each side makes its closing arguments to the jury. The judge then tells the jury the laws and rules applicable to your case which govern the jury's deliberation. The jury then goes into a room to talk about the case until they reach a unanimous verdict. If the jury is unable to reach a unanimous verdict, meaning every juror does not agree to the same verdict, a mistrial is announced and the case will be reset for trial at a later date.
If you plead guilty, or nolo contendere, or are found guilty after a trial, the judge may postpone sentencing and order a pre-sentence investigation (PSI). The PSI informs the judge of your background and helps the judge decide your sentence. A probation officer will question you and may question members of your family, your friends, witnesses in the case and your attorney in order to make this report to the judge. The PSI includes the cause and circumstances of the crime, your prior criminal record, if any, your reputation in the community, and background about your family, education, employment and health. If you are a candidate for probation, the PSI will include informa¬tion about your plans for the future.
Be truthful with the probation officer since all statements are verified and untruthful statements are reported to the judge. HOWEVER, you should not discuss your knowledge of the crime for which you are convicted or any other crimes without permission from your attorney. Also, the PSI will discuss things like your lifestyle, behavior pattern and general attitude. PSI's often take several weeks to complete. Your attorney will obtain a copy of the PSI and review it with you.
If you are to be sentenced, you will have an opportunity to speak with the judge at the sentencing hearing. You should discuss with your attorney whether to speak with the judge and, if so, what to say. The judge will also give the state, your attorney, and any other interested party or witness a chance to speak. Let your attorney know in advance the names and addresses of people you want to speak at your sentencing. Do not compare the sentence in your case with those in other cases you have heard about because each case is different.
If you feel your arrest was caused by alcohol, drug or mental problems, tell your attorney. Some judicial circuits have an Alternative Sentencing Program which may help you get into a special treatment program. Your involvement in a treatment program may help in getting leniency from the prosecutor and the judge. Additionally, some judicial circuits have special courts, called Drug Court, designed to handle such cases.
Probation is a privilege -- not a right. If you are a first-time offender, this does not mean you will automatically receive probation. If you are placed on probation, the usual conditions include:
1. reporting regularly to your probation officer;
2. notifying and receiving permission from your probation officer before changing your address, changing your job, or leaving the county; and
3. leading a law-abiding life and not committing any other crimes.
If you violate any of these probation conditions, or any special conditions required by the judge, the judge may sentence you to jail or prison. If the violation of probation is a crime committed by you while on probation, the judge can revoke your probation without waiting until you are convicted of the new charge. A probation violation hearing will be held by the judge without a jury.
If you are found guilty at trial or by plea of guilty or no contest, the judge may require you to pay attorney fees for the reasonable value of the services you receive from the Public Defender, court costs and restitution. A lien in the amount of the attorney's fees may be imposed against any property you may own. Additionally, a judgment may be filed against you for the attorney's fees, court costs and restitution.
If you are convicted and want to appeal your case, you must do so within 30 days after sentencing. You have no right to appeal if you entered a voluntary and intelligent plea, with or without a plea agreement, except for an illegal sentence. You cannot appeal just because a jury found you guilty. In order to appeal, some legal mistake must have been made in your case. For example, an appeal will only help you if the judge did not follow the law, or if you were prevented from properly exercising all your rights. You or your attorney must advise the Appellate Court exactly how the judge did not follow the law or what rights you were denied before the Appellate Court will reverse a conviction. If your case is appealed, the judge may allow your release on bail for some offenses until a final decision is reached. The judge will only do this if he or she believes you have a good reason for appealing and believes you will re-appear in court. However, you do not have an automatic right to bail when appealing. If you wish to appeal your case, you should discuss this matter with your attorney as soon as possible because the notice of appeal must be filed by the 30th day after your sentence. In no event should you wait more than 30 days before contacting your attorney.
If you are a juvenile (under 18 years of age), charged in the juvenile system (and have never been treated in the adult system), your first court hearing is called a detention hearing. At that time, the judge will decide whether you should be released from custody and may appoint an attorney from the Office of the Public Defender to represent you.
If you are under the age of 18, you may be tried as an adult under certain circumstances. Your prior record and the seriousness of the charge may be considered. Your attorney will explain these matters to you based on the facts of your case. If you are to be tried as a juvenile, you may be released from custody through a program called non-secure detention. Your attorney may ask for you to be interviewed for non-secure detention, and will ask the judge for your release.
Only the judge can place you in the non-secure program. Non-secure detention allows you to live at home while waiting for trial. A counselor will contact you periodically. You may be returned to custody if you do not follow all rules set by your counselor. After the detention hearing there will be an arraignment where you will be asked to enter your plea. The various pleas available to you and procedures to be followed in handing your case are similar to those for adults, except that you do not have the right to a jury trial (ask your attorney for details). Your case will be heard and decided by a judge assigned to the Juvenile Court. Your trial will be called an adjudicatory hearing. If you have been found not guilty by the judge or if your case has been dismissed, you will be released and there will be no further proceedings in your case. If you are found guilty at the adjudicatory hearing, you will have a dispositional hearing where the judge decides what will happen to you.
In order to determine the disposition of your case, the judge will look at the facts and your personal background including your prior record, if any. Your counselor will provide a report on your background. The judge can place you in a program supervised by Juvenile Justice or may place you under the supervision of the Department of Juvenile Justice. Do not compare the disposition of your case with other cases, because each case is different.
If the judge orders you to participate in community con¬trol, you may be required to work for the victim, repay the victim for any damages, or provide some kind of service working for your community. If you do not complete your responsibilities under community control, you may be brought back to court. Your attorney will represent you at this hearing and must explain why you did not complete the community control program. You may be committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice if the judge finds that you have not done what you were ordered to do.