Perspectives of Public Defenders Navigating the DWI System

  • Lack of uniformity across jurisdictions. Offenses that occur in one jurisdiction may be handled differently and have different outcomes than offenses occurring in another jurisdiction.
  • Barriers to establishing rapport with defendants who may not view public defenders as qualified or legitimate attorneys.
  • Often, the first-time public defenders meet with a defendant is after arraignment and less than 30 minutes before trial. Defendants are rarely prepared to participate effectively in their own defense due to limited understanding of criminal justice process, the relevant facts of the case, or the evidence to be presented.
  • Defendants often assume all court entities share information that defendants or other government staff/agencies provided. Public defenders often require this information as part of court preparation, but defendants may not know it is needed or are unable to provide it.
  • High turnover among public defenders. Most public defenders handling DWI defendants have limited experience with criminal defense generally, and DWI defense work specifically. Public defenders interact with defendants at various stages of the court process. The public defender assigned at each stage may change throughout the process.
  • Public defenders feel unprepared for DWI cases because of limited educational opportunities that: identify and explain the characteristics of DWI defendants, teach the science of breath alcohol testing and technical evidentiary issues, or expound on evidence-based countermeasures.

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees a person’s right to counsel. However, there is a disparity in the quality of representation defendants can access often based on one’s ability to pay. It is necessary to better understand the similarities and differences in experiences of private and public defense attorneys, as well as the perceptions and experiences of individuals tasked with representing low-income defendants who are eligible for a public defender.