Should I Use a Public Defender in My Nevada Criminal Case?

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When Do I Have the Right to a Nevada Public Defender?

We've all heard the speech on TV: You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.

However, this is not always true.

Just as importantly, your “free” lawyer may end up costing you more than a private lawyer would. And while public defenders are usually quite knowledgeable, they often have huge caseloads and you do not get choose your lawyer.

Our caring Reno and Las Vegas, Nevada criminal defense lawyers have the experience, time and resources to devote to your representation. We offer flexible payment options and a variety of services – including consultation if you choose to represent yourself in Nevada.

To help you decide whether a public defender is right for you, our Nevada criminal lawyers address the following, below:

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1. When do I have the right to a public defender in Nevada?

In Nevada, you have the right to a public defender when you are indigent and you are accused of:

  • A felony;
  • A gross misdemeanor; or
  • A misdemeanor for which the prosecutor is seeking jail time.1

This means that if you were arrested on misdemeanor charges and the prosecutor is seeking a fine, public service, counseling and/or restitution only, you do not have the right to a public defender.

Indigent people are also entitled to a public defender in juvenile proceedings, involuntary commitment hearings, parental termination petitions, parole hearings at the Nevada Department of Corrections, and in juvenile and family drug court.

2. The definition of “indigent”

Before you can be appointed a public defender, the court must make a finding that you are indigent.

Indigency is generally defined as not having enough resources to hire private counsel. The decision is made jointly by Court Services and the judge presiding over your case. They will take into account your current financial circumstances after examining your financial assets and liabilities.

3. How do I get a public defender?

On television, a lawyer magically shows up when you ask for one.

But in practice, you must usually make the request to the judge when you appear in court. Your request must be accompanied by an affidavit which states that you are without means of employing an attorney and which sets forth specific facts concerning your financial disability.2

The judge may make further inquiries. If he or she agrees that you are indigent and determines that representation is required the judge will designate the public defender of the county or the State Public Defender, as appropriate, to represent you.3

If you qualify for a public defender, you will not get to choose your lawyer. The court will send you a letter telling you the name of the attorney who will be assisting you. You may also call the court for the information.

Your attorney will counsel and defend you at every stage of your proceeding, from arraignment, to trial and sentencing and, if necessary, revocation of probation or parole. The public defender will also prosecute appeals and other pre- and post-conviction remedies that he or she considers to be in the interests of justice.4  

4. How much does a public defender cost?

Most people, even if they qualify as indigent, are required to make a financial contribution to the county for a public defender's services, usually in an amount between $250 and $1000.5

You may also be required to reimburse the costs of your public defender if you are found not to be indigent or if you acquire property sufficient to cover the costs within 6 years after the termination of the attorney's representation.6 In such case, the court may determine the value of the legal services provided and render judgment for that amount or any smaller amount in favor of the state, county or city which furnished the public defender or otherwise paid for the defense. The order may be made at the time of or after the appointment of an attorney and may direct you to pay the expenses in installments.7

The court will not order you to make such a payment unless you are able to do so. In determining the amount and method of payment, the court will take account of your financial resources and the nature of the burden that payment will impose.8

You may petition the court at any time for reduction or remission of the payments if they would impose a “manifest hardship” on you or your immediate family. In such a case, the court may remit all or part of the amount due or modify the method of payment.9

Alternatively, at your request, the court may allow you to “pay” back your public defender fees by performing supervised community service for a reasonable number of hours, the value of which would be commensurate with the expenses incurred. The court may first require you, however, to deposit with the court a reasonable sum of money to pay for the cost of liability and property damage insurance policies.10

The government does not usually bother going after indigent defendants for repayment of public defender costs. But you should be aware that the government has the right to, including the right to execute judgment against your property.

If the government has to execute judgment against you to get the fee(s), it may also be entitled to:

  • The costs and fees the government actually incurs in collecting the fee; and
  • An additional fee payable to the county treasurer in the amount of 2% of the fee collected.

The total amount of the costs and fees required to be collected may not exceed 35% of the amount of the fee or $50,000, whichever is less.

5. Additional resources:

Accused of a crime in Nevada? Call us for a free consultation…

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Before requesting a public defender, why not contact us for a free consultation? Our caring Las Vegas and Reno criminal lawyers will review your case and give you an estimate of the costs of obtaining experienced, aggressive legal help for your Nevada criminal charges.

To speak to one of our lawyers, call us at 702-DEFENSE (702-333-3673) or complete the form on this page.


Legal resources:

  1. NRS 178.397: Every defendant accused of a gross misdemeanor or felony who is financially unable to obtain counsel is entitled to have counsel assigned to represent the defendant at every stage of the proceedings from the defendant's initial appearance before a magistrate or the court through appeal, unless the defendant waives such appointment; See also Argersinger v. Hamlin (1972 ) 407 US 25.
  2. NRS 171.188 (1) and (2).
  3. NRS 171.188 (3).
  4. NRS 260.050.
  5. See e.g., Washoe County public defender FAQ.
  6. NRS 178.398.
  7. NRS 178.3975 (1).
  8. NRS 178.3975 (2).
  9. NRS 178.3975 (3).
  10. NRS 178.3975 (5).

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