Can a Public Defender Represent You in a Civil Matter?
The standard Miranda warning that police give includes advising criminal suspects that they have the right to an attorney during questioning, and “If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you before any questioning if you wish.” Indeed, anyone facing possible jail time for a crime in Florida has the right to the services of a public defender if they cannot afford a private criminal defense attorney.
Public defenders provide a valuable service not only to their clients but for all residents of Florida. Ensuring that every person accused of a crime has qualified representation helps to keep our judicial system honest and accountable. At the same time, there are often disadvantages for clients who need to use a public defender. For one thing, public defenders are often overworked and forced to carry enormous caseloads. This can make it difficult to give each client the individual attention that their case deserves.
Florida Appeals Court Removes Public Defender from Challenge to Civil Restitution Claim
Another disadvantage of a public defender is their services are limited to criminal matters. There is no such thing as a right to an attorney in a civil lawsuit. This includes civil matters that may arise from an underlying criminal prosecution. In those situations, a defendant must seek representation from a private attorney.
A recent decision from the Florida Second District Court of Appeal, Florida Department of Corrections v. Holt, provides a case in point. The defendant in this case is presently serving a life sentence in a Florida prison following a conviction for first-degree murder. In September 2022, the Department of Corrections (DOC) filed a post-trial motion to impose a civil restitution lien against the defendant. Under § 960.293 of the Florida Statutes, upon conviction a criminal defendant is liable to the state and any local subdivisions for “damages and losses for incarceration costs and other correctional costs.” In this case of a defendant sentenced to life in prison, these civil damages are set by statute at $250,000. (For non-capital, non-life offenses the civil lien is $50 per day of the defendant’s incarceration.)
The public defender opposed the lien, alleging it was an act of illegal retaliation against the defendant for filing a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Department. In response, the Department asked the judge to disqualify the public defender from the case, alleging the defendant was not entitled to their representation in a civil matter.
The circuit court denied the motion. But on appeal, the Second District reversed and granted the DOC’s motion to vacate the public defender’s appointment. The appellate court explained the public defender only had the authority to represent indigent defendants in criminal matters. Proceedings under § 960.293 were civil in nature even though they arose out of a criminal conviction. The defendant would therefore have to find a private attorney or represent himself.
Contact the Joshi Law Firm Today
If you are accused of a serious crime that may cost you your freedom and your property, it is in your best interest to work with an experienced Orlando criminal lawyer. Contact the Joshi law Firm, P.A., today to schedule a free consultation.