Frequently Asked Questions

What is public defense?

Public defense is free legal help for people facing criminal charges who cannot afford a lawyer. The test is not whether a defendant has a job or is poor, it is whether he or she can afford to hire a lawyer.

Are Public Defenders “real” attorneys?

Yes. All public defenders are licensed to practice law by the Pennsylvania Bar Association. They have the same education and meet the same requirements as attorneys employed privately.

How much money can I make to qualify?

The Office of the Public Defender follows the United States Federal Poverty Guidelines to determine who qualifies for our services.

My sister/mother/boyfriend/etc. is incarcerated and they need an attorney.

We have Public Defender Intake Staff at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) that interview all individuals incarcerated pending a preliminary hearing. If you need an attorney, you will have the opportunity to speak to a staff member and request representation.

If a family member/friend is incarcerated but the incarceration is not for a recent arrest or for a preliminary hearing, the incarcerated family/friend should write a letter to our office, requesting representation and include permission for our staff to speak to any specific family/friends, if desired. The jail provides paper and will deliver the inmate's mail to our office.

My family member is in the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ). I don’t know why or when their court date is.

You can use the Unified Judicial System (UJS) portal to find the case information. See the Find Your Case page.

My brother/father/girlfriend/etc. is incarcerated and has issues (mental health, drug/alcohol, medical) that the ACJ must address.

The incarcerated family member should ask for the POD caseworker, as each POD has an assigned caseworker. You can also attempt to call the ACJ and ask to speak to the assigned caseworker for their family member. If your family member/you already have been assigned an attorney, call the assigned attorney.

I live in another county/state or I’m in a treatment facility or I am in the hospital. How do I get an attorney?

Call our office and ask to speak with the Intake Staff that handles long distance clients. That staff member will evaluate on a case-by-case basis. We will have the caller fax the potential client’s court paperwork to our office along with proof of income and contact information to call them. If they are in a facility, the facility must fax a letter stating that the potential client is, indeed, in their facility. Once that information is received, the staff member will process the paperwork for the client.

What kind of cases do you handle?

The Office of the Public Defender represents clients for Criminal proceedings. We do not handle Civil court cases, such as divorce, landlord disputes or custody.

Will I have the same attorney throughout my case?

No. You will be assigned a Preliminary Hearing Attorney for your Preliminary Hearing. If your case is held or waived to Formal Arraignment, your Preliminary Hearing attorney will be replaced with a Trial attorney after Formal Arraignment. This attorney will continue with you through the remainder of your case.

Would I be better off hiring my own attorney?

If you can afford to hire an attorney, you do not qualify for the services of the public defender and should hire your own lawyer. The Public Defender's Office only represents people who cannot afford to hire an attorney. If you really can't afford to hire an attorney but are thinking about begging the family to hock the farm to do so, consider the following:

Public defenders have long suffered from a public perception as second rate lawyers who couldn't get a "real" job and had to "settle" for working for starvation wages as a public defender. We also suffer from the belief by some that we don't really work hard for our clients. These are wholly untrue stereotypes.

The attorneys who chose to work as public defenders are some of the brightest, best educated, and most dedicated lawyers there are. The Allegheny County Public Defender's Office is made up of people who want to practice nothing but criminal law. They don't do divorces or car accident cases or write wills. While almost all of them could earn more money if that was the most important thing to them, they choose to represent for less so those who can’t pay can still get really good representation.

How do you defend someone when you know they are guilty?

A Public Defender’s belief in a client's guilt or innocence is totally irrelevant. That determination is the job of the judge or jury under our adversarial system of justice. Every person charged by the government is entitled to zealous representation. Additionally, our job is every bit as much making sure that the government doesn't over-charge or over-punish a guilty client as it is to see that it doesn't convict an innocent one.

We believe that criminal defense lawyers are really constitutional defense lawyers; we are the last line of defense between the individual rights and liberty of all citizens. If it weren't for criminal defense attorneys tirelessly challenging the power of the government to intrude into individuals' lives, no one would be safe from unreasonable government intrusion.

What do I do if there is a warrant for my arrest?

If you are currently represented by a private attorney, inform him or her immediately. If you were represented by our office, call our office for further instruction.

Quite often, if you appear at Pretrial Services, 4th Floor of the Manor Building (564 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, 15219), before 8:30 am, you can stay and take care of the matter that same day. Bear in mind there are no guarantees that you will not be arrested on the warrant until you appear in court, depending on why the warrant was issued. There is normally a Public Defender available in court to assist you when you appear in front of the judge. If you are not a Public Defender client, you will need to apply for our services.

Should I answer police questions about a crime?

If you are in custody or if you feel that you are not free to leave the presence of the police officer and if s/he wants to ask questions about the alleged crime, you have the right to have an attorney or if you are a minor, to have your parent present. Even if you do not know any lawyers, you can ask to have a lawyer present. You should always ask to have an attorney or your parent present when you are being asked questions about an alleged crime. More Do's and Don'ts can be found on the New Client Advice page.

Can I speak with a Public Defender, even though I have an attorney?

No, once you are represented by any attorney, either appointed or retained, the public defender will not speak with you without that attorney's permission.

Can I speak to a Public Defender before my Preliminary Arraignment?

Our office can provide general information regarding the court process. The specifics of your case cannot be discussed until we are representing you.

The police didn’t read me my rights; can I get my case dismissed?

Probably not. Not being properly advised of your constitutional rights may have consequences that will impact the ultimate outcome of your case, but the mere fact that you were not read your rights does not mean your case is automatically dismissed. It is an issue that should be brought to the attention of your attorney.

My case has already been tried and I want to file a criminal appeal. Can a public defender be my attorney for this appeal?

Yes, contact the Public Defender Appeals Division at 412-350-2403.

Should I discuss my case with anyone other than my assigned lawyer or a representative from the office of the public defender?

No. It is very important that you do not talk to anyone about your case without your assigned lawyer being present or without him/her giving your permission to do so. More Do's and Don'ts can be found on the New Client Advice page.

I was convicted of a crime a number of years ago. Can I get that conviction off my record?

Yes, there are a number of qualifications to do so. Find more information about Expungements at the bottom of the Stages of Representation page.

Who works in and with the Office of the Public Defender?

In addition to attorneys, several other professionals may serve important roles in a public defender office. Paralegals have some legal training and help the lawyers with a lot of the casework. Investigators help by checking out the facts of the case to support the defendants' version of what happened. Many offices use social workers, mental health specialists and drug treatment specialists to figure out whether clients have problems that the lawyer and the court might be able to get them help with, perhaps as an alternative to getting locked up.

Are there types of cases where an individual cannot get a court-appointed lawyer, regardless of how poor he or she is?

Yes. The constitutional right to counsel applies only if you are facing a possible sentence to jail or prison. Therefore, a misdemeanor carrying no possible incarceration sentence does not qualify. Also, the right to counsel terminates after the case is over and any conviction is made final on direct appeal ― meaning, the state is not constitutionally required to appoint a lawyer to help with habeas corpus or other post-conviction challenges. Some states, however, have taken it upon themselves to set up offices to help with petitions by prisoners and death row inmates.