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Hiring a DWI Attorney Versus Using a Court-Appointed Lawyer

Facing the criminal justice system can be overwhelming and unbelievably stressful if you're up against a DWI or another alcohol-related charge in Texas. You undoubtedly have questions about what will happen next, how to defend your case, and the potential consequences of a conviction. It's important to understand that you are innocent until proven guilty, and a good attorney can be the difference between jail and hefty fines or a better outcome. But what about court-appointed attorneys? How does that work in Texas? If you're offered a court-appointed attorney, what's the advantage of hiring an attorney with experience in DWI defense like Doug Murphy?

The consequences of a DWI conviction can go beyond big fines and jail time, particularly if you're facing a felony DWI charge. Having a criminal conviction on your record can affect your future educational and career opportunities, prevent you from holding or obtaining some professional licenses, and prevent you from working in law enforcement or serving in the military. A conviction can also affect your custody and visitation arrangements if you're separated or divorced and even keep you from renting a home or obtaining a mortgage in some cases.

When a DWI conviction can greatly impact your life and future, you need the best possible representation you can get. Before accepting a court-appointed lawyer, you should understand the process for obtaining a public defender and how the system works. You should also understand the advantages of hiring a private attorney with extensive experience in DWI defense who has the time and the resources to zealously protect your rights through the criminal justice system. Attorney Doug Murphy has over 20 years of experience in DWI defense and criminal defense law in Texas, and he can help you. Give the Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C. a call at 713-229-8333 or contact us online to schedule your consultation.

The 14th Amendment and the Right to a Lawyer

We all know you have the right to an attorney to represent you in court if you're charged with a crime. But how did that right come about? The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives criminal defendants the right to a lawyer, an impartial jury, and a speedy public trial. Still, the amendment only applied to the federal system and criminal charges. It wasn't until the U.S. Supreme Court decided Gideon v. Wainright in 1963 that the right to an attorney also applied to state criminal charges by incorporating the Fourteenth Amendment.

Gideon v. Wainright involved a criminal defendant who asked a Florida court to appoint an attorney because he couldn't afford one. The court denied his request because, at the time, Florida law only allowed the appointment of attorneys for defendants in capital cases. In Gideon, the Supreme Court incorporated the right to counsel to the states through the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. With the decision in Gideon, defendants in felony cases now had an absolute right to counsel appointed by the court.

The Supreme Court expanded the right to an attorney to juveniles in 1967 in In re Gault and to misdemeanor offenses in 1972 in Argersinger v. Hamlin. Then in 1977, in Brewer v. Williams, the Supreme Court stated a defendant was entitled to an attorney "at or after the time that judicial proceedings have been initiated against him, whether by formal charge, preliminary hearing, indictment, information, or arraignment."

Texas Law and the Right to a Lawyer

In the wake of Gideon v. Wainright, state law incorporated the right to an attorney for criminal defendants. Under Section 10, Article 1 of the Bill of Rights of the Texas Constitution, defendants "shall have the right of being heard by himself or counsel, or both." Under the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure:

A defendant in a criminal matter is entitled to be represented by counsel in an adversarial judicial proceeding. The right to be represented by counsel includes the right to consult in private with counsel sufficiently in advance of a proceeding to allow adequate preparation for the proceeding.

Even though the Gideon case and its progeny established a right to counsel for defendants in state court, the case didn't detail how states should pay for them. As a result, many state public defenders and appointed counsel programs are woefully underfunded, with the need for court-appointed counsel outstripping the needs of defendants.

In 2001, Texas passed the Fair Defense Act, which set the state's framework for appointing attorneys for indigent defendants. The legislature intended for the law to make the appointment of counsel a fair process for all indigent defendants. However, court-appointed attorneys are still overworked and grossly underpaid. This makes it challenging for a court-appointed lawyer to match the level and quality of representation you'll find with attorney who is knowledgeable and skilled in DWI and criminal defense law like Doug Murphy.

Qualifying as "Indigent" in Texas

While you are entitled to have an attorney represent you when facing criminal charges, most people must pay for their own attorney. But if you tell the judge you can't afford an attorney, the court may appoint one to represent you. However, under Texas law, you must qualify as "indigent" to receive a court-appointed attorney.

To determine if you're "indigent," the court will ask you for financial information, including income and assets. The court may also ask for documentation such as pay stubs, bank account information, or tax returns. The court will consider information such as:

  • Your income, your spouse's income, and other sources of income,
  • The assets and property that you have, including bank accounts and investments,
  • Your necessary expenses,
  • Your outstanding financial obligations, and
  • The age and number of your dependents.

If your income isn't over 125% of the federal poverty level, the court may presume you are indigent. Sometimes, the court may appoint counsel even if you aren't indigent. Under the law, "[t]he judge of the court may also appoint counsel, in the interests of justice to a person appearing before the court, regardless of the person's financial status."

Court-appointed Attorneys in Texas

If the court appoints an attorney to represent you, you may receive either a public defender or a private attorney assigned to cases by the court, sometimes as a contractor or through a Managed Assigned Counsel office. The attorney you receive may depend on the charges against you and the attorneys available in your area. Houston uses a combination of the two.

1. Public Defenders

The public defenders are full-time Harris County Public Defender's Office employees. The office is funded by a combination of state and federal funds, but not every county in Texas has a Public Defender's Office. There are only 20 in Texas, and they serve 39 counties in the state. Other counties in the state must rely on private attorneys to act as court-appointed counsel. Public defenders handle a wide range of cases, including felony, misdemeanor, and juvenile cases. Unlike private attorneys appointed as counsel, they are also trained and supervised by a central office. The office will assign attorneys based on experience and training. However, public defender offices are still underfunded in Texas, and need outstrips the availability of public defenders.

2. Private Attorneys

In the most common arrangement in Texas, the court will select a private attorney from an appointment list pre-approved by the court or judges. Attorneys are appointed on a rotating wheel and are independent contractors reimbursed by the state at greatly reduced rates. Private attorneys may also be available in some counties, including Houston, through the Managed Assigned Counsel (MAC) office. The office functions similarly to a public defender's office, but the attorneys assigned are in private practice. The MAC office will train attorneys and employ supervising attorneys to consult with and oversee appointed MAC. These private attorneys submit vouchers to the MAC office for payment. Some MAC attorneys handle only misdemeanor cases, while some handle felonies as well. The MAC office is typically funded with a combination of county and state funds.

Hiring an Attorney Versus a Court-Appointed Attorney

The most important advantage to hiring your own private attorney is choice. But there are many advantages to selecting your own lawyer. You can choose based on qualifications, experience, reputation, and your feelings about who will best provide a vigorous defense. When the court appoints an attorney for you in Texas, you won't be able to choose who represents you. Your attorney will be the luck of the draw, and you cannot easily fire them without the court's permission. When you hire your own attorney, you can choose the best fit for you and your case.

1. Low Funding for Court-appointed Attorneys

Appointed attorneys are underfunded and overworked. There aren't enough public defenders or MAC to cover the need when mass arrests happen or even on a busy holiday weekend. With a court-appointed attorney, you will often be waiting on an overworked lawyer with little time to investigate and negotiate on your behalf.

According to the Texas Tribune, in 2019, Texas spent less per capita on indigent defense funding than most states in the U.S. Each county in Texas pays for its own appointed attorneys with small matches from the state. But there isn't enough funding to meet the needs of indigent defendants in the state. In 2017, Texas counties paid an average of $247 per misdemeanor case and $598 per felony. These cases can take hundreds of attorney hours, incentivizing appointed attorneys to take plea deals rather than defending their clients in court. In an investigation by the Texas Tribune, attorneys complained that they couldn't adequately represent their clients or investigate cases with the limited funds the courts are willing to approve. The entire system is stacked against indigent defendants, making it challenging for court-appointed attorneys to get the best results for their clients.

2. Free Attorneys Aren't Always Free

While the one advantage to having a court-appointed attorney would seem to be getting an attorney for free, that isn't always the case. You may not have to pay a fee upfront for a court-appointed attorney, but the court may often order you to repay attorney fees as a condition of probation or a bond. You also won't have much chance to question attorney fees already approved by the court before being ordered to pay them.

3. Hiring an Expert in DWI and Criminal Defense

If you choose your own attorney, you can hire a person who is knowledgeable in DWI defense. Ideally, you will want to work with a lawyer who has certification from the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. These certifications are rare, and the board has only awarded around 7,200 of them since 1972. However, attorney Doug Murphy is Board Certified in both DWI Defense and Criminal Defense Law; one of only two attorneys in the state to hold certifications in both these areas.

4. Hiring an Attorney with a Stellar Reputation

When you use a court-appointed attorney, you cannot select an attorney with an excellent professional reputation. But a good professional reputation in the community and among legal peers is an objective way to see what other lawyers think of your attorney's skills in and out of the courtroom.

Attorney Doug Murphy has a good reputation in the Houston legal community and the community at large. Best Lawyers in America from U.S. News and World Report has named him a "Lawyer of the Year" for Houston DWI defense. The publication selects attorneys based solely on the nominations and votes of lawyers in the Houston area.

The Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association also bestowed Doug the Sharon Levine Unsung Heroes award for helping to expose flaws in the Houston Police Department's Breath Alcohol Testing vans. Exposing these flaws led to the department decommissioning the vans. Moreover, Doug has spoken at more than 120 legal conferences and continuing legal education seminars nationwide. He is a sought-after legal educator because of his extensive litigation experience and his knowledge of DWI and criminal law. Doug also acted as the Dean of the National College for DUI Defense conducted at Harvard Law School. The NCDD is a nonprofit legal organization that educates the public and the criminal defense bar about DWI laws and related legal issues.

Attorney Doug Murphy Has Experience in Texas DWI Defense

Attorney Doug Murphy has extensive experience in Texas DWI Defense and Criminal Defense Law. He is Board Certified in both of these areas. To receive Board Certification, attorneys must qualify through the Texas Board of Legal Specializations and the National College for DUI Defense (NCDD), a nonprofit, professional corporation tasked with strengthening the DUI defense bar nationally.

1. Becoming Board Certified in DWI Defense

Doug has decades of experience in DWI and criminal law defense, including handling complex misdemeanor and felony trials. But experience alone doesn't qualify a Texas lawyer for Board Certification. The Texas Board of Legal Specialization awarded him Board Certifications in Criminal Defense and DWI Defense, demonstrating that he has the necessary knowledge and experience in these fields.

2. The Application and Testing Process

Doug went through an extensive application and testing process to obtain his DWI defense certification. The NCDD accepts applications for certification all year but gives the exam only once a year. The application requires each attorney to detail their "substantial involvement" in DWI defense, have college-approved continuing legal education credits, and provide five references from attorneys. Four of these references must be from attorneys who've conducted a trial with or against the attorney. Applicants must then complete oral and written exams that "cover the issues and the complexity of DWI defense, including a demonstration of knowledge in substantive, procedural and scientific areas, as well as evidentiary issues, which impact and affect the defense of a person accused of DWI." The written exam covers every aspect of DWI defense, including evidentiary, procedural, substantive, and scientific issues. The oral exam can take the form of a mock trial or appellate argument.

Contact Our Board Certified Houston DWI Defense Attorney

Most attorneys do their best for their clients, even court-appointed attorneys. But many court-appointed lawyers, whether public defenders or private attorneys, are underfunded and overworked. Texas has nearly half a million indigent defendants yearly and not enough court-appointed attorneys to help them all. And not all attorneys have the qualifications and experience of Doug and his team.

Attorney Doug Murphy has the knowledge and experience needed to represent clients in matters involving DWI Defense and Criminal Defense Law, with Board Certifications in both these areas. He is one of only two attorneys in Texas with certifications in both these areas of the law. U.S. News and World Report's Best Lawyers in America has also named Doug a "Lawyer of the Year" for DWI Defense in Houston.

Doug is also active in the Houston legal community. He served two terms on the board of directors for the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and as co-chair of the DWI Committee. He also served as President of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. Doug and the skilled team at the Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C. have been defending Texans from DWI and other criminal charges for years, and they can help you too. Call us at 713-229-8333 or contact us online to schedule your free consultation.

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