What Happens If I’m Arrested and Cannot Afford a Lawyer?

By Jadranko Tomic Bobas, Managing Hotline Attorney, and Lauren Sutter, Legal Hotline Intern
Getting arrested can be overwhelming and scary, but those feelings can be even greater for seniors who are arrested. According to the Michigan Incident Crime Report, 2,925 of the arrests occurring in 2016 were people age 65 and above. This age demographic represents only 1.22% of arrests, but this still could leave many seniors facing criminal charges with no real idea of what the next steps are.
Most people know to ask for a lawyer after being arrested, but what about seniors that are low-income and can’t afford to hire a private attorney? What happens next is the process of being given a public defender, or court-appointed attorney. We have all seen the shows and heard the spiel before. Ranging from the serious and dramatic “Blue Bloods” to the light-hearted and comedic “Brooklyn 99” television show, each of these primetime hits have exposed the public to the Miranda warning. In its simplest form, it is a listing of the basic rights one has after being arrested. These rights primarily include the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney.
What follows is that all-important phrase, “If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you”. The best way to make that happen is to ask. After your arrest, ask the officer for an attorney and do not answer any questions without one. Likely, you will not be given an attorney until your first actual court appearance. This first appearance is called arraignment and usually happens within 48 hours of your arrest.
Once you appear in court to be arraigned, the first thing you will be asked is if you have a lawyer. You can respond that you do not, and the judge will then ask if you can afford to hire one and if you want one appointed to represent you. Respond honestly and the judge will appoint a public defender or another attorney to represent you. Be aware that you may be asked to show you cannot afford to hire your own attorney before having one appointed to you.
Next, a court-appointed attorney or public defender can help you walk through the court process. They can explain the next steps and options, as well as argue on your behalf and negotiate for you with the court and the prosecutor. Your attorney can explain legal jargon to you, as well as break down what’s happening, so you are not in the dark about what the court is doing.
Your attorney is required to read any pre-sentence report to you and make sure you understand what it means. They can also speak on your behalf to negotiate the best and most fair agreements for you if you choose to plead guilty or no contest. Your attorney can make calls and do research that you would be unable to do yourself, and they are there to serve as your advocate. Remember, these attorneys are paid by someone else, but you are their client and they are there to represent you to the best of their ability.
The court process can be scary at the best of times and is much worse when a person finds themselves being charged, has no idea what to do next, and has no money to hire an attorney. Luckily, there is a long-established system set in place to ensure that every American facing criminal charges has access to competent legal representation.
For more information on court-appointed attorneys, visit the Michigan Judiciary website.