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About Hiring Private Defense for a DUI Case

Below is excerpted from an interview with Jason Kalafat Defense Attorney.

Why should someone hire a private attorney as opposed to using a public defender in a DUI case?

Jason Kalafat: With a DUI, the defendant does not technically get a public defender, and that is an important distinction. A lot of people use the term “public defender” to describe anyone who is free counsel. In DC, the Public Defender Service is a very specific entity, with very qualified attorneys, but they only handle felony cases. They do not handle DUIs. If someone has a court-appointed counsel in a DUI case, that will be an attorney who is on the Criminal Justice Act Panel. The problem with having a court-appointed counsel is the person does not have the opportunity to meet with the attorney to determine whether they are a good fit, and whether they understand the specific issues and circumstances of the case. Unfortunately, when you get a group of 12 people for a jury, a couple of them are going to be great and a couple of them are not going to be good at all, and the others are going to be somewhere in the middle; that’s true of a court-appointed counsel as well. Not to besmirch them across the board, but unfortunately, a person may not get the right attorney for their case if they stay with the attorney that is appointed by the court.

What strategies can a private attorney use that a court-appointed attorney or a public defender can’t use?

Jason Kalafat: I am a partner at a law firm and we have tremendous resources. We have investigators on staff. We have paralegals. We have clerks. We have associates. We have everything that someone could need for a team approach and that almost invariably is not the situation with a court-appointed attorney. We are able to quickly handle and investigate any issues there may be without having to wait for the government to provide information. I am in court every single day. I know all of the prosecutors very well and I talk to them on a daily basis. Whenever I get a case, as soon as I determine which prosecutor is involved, I reach out to them. I am never just sitting back waiting for information and hoping that things go away. A court-appointed attorney may have multiple cases and may not able to put the resources forward to be proactive.

What is the difference between a court-appointed attorney and a public defender?

Jason Kalafat: A public defender is a general term that people use for any court-appointed attorney. Most major metropolitan areas have a public defender office or a public defender service. In DC, it is called PDS, or Public Defender Service. It is extremely difficult to get hired by the PDS. They only take very good candidates. They only handle felony cases at the Superior Court. A regular court-appointed attorney, as opposed to a public defender, comes from the Criminal Justice Act Panel. The Criminal Justice Act says that if someone is not able to afford an attorney, they will provide one for them. There are some requirements to get on the panel, but it’s not nearly as rigorous as being hired by the Public Defender Service. If someone gets a public defender because they have a felony case, they actually have tons of resources. They are like a public criminal defense firm, whereas a Criminal Justice Act attorney is most often somebody who is on their own. They have the ability to have the court pay for investigators, but they do not have a secretary, paralegals, or a clerk. They do not have anybody to help them. It’s difficult to get a hold of them. It’s difficult to get a follow-up on anything. They are overworked and underpaid.

For example, recently I was in court with my client for a DUI case. My client and I had multiple meetings before that court hearing. I had briefed my client. We had made decisions. We knew exactly what we were doing because everything was already briefed. We knew going into the court hearing exactly what was going to happen. There might have been something the judge would decide on, but I had prepped my client. We had done all the work. We had already talked to the prosecutor. We watched a court-appointed attorney come in and call out to the room, “John Smith?” That person, John Smith, had been their client for a month and a half, and they had no idea what he looked like. They didn’t know anything. They never talked to him beyond that first court date when they talked to him for five minutes. Then they went up to the prosecutor and had their negotiation. They discussed them with the prosecutor right then and there over a period of two minutes.

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