SAN ANTONIO – You have the right to a lawyer.
If you have ever watched any crime drama or have ever been arrested, you know the lines following the first.
If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be assigned to you.
For those who cannot afford a lawyer in Bexar County, the Bexar County Public Defender’s Office intervenes.
“Everything we do is protect the underprivileged,” said Jacqueline Lamerson, acting chief public defender for Bexar County.
Someone who was there
Isaac Munoz was arrested on August 5, 2022.
“You’re a little scared,” he said. – You know nothing.
His arrest followed several difficult years.
Isaac’s father died in 2018, his mother died in 2019, and his sister died in 2020.
The death of his sister left him homeless.
“I am a struggling homeless person. I am homeless,” he said. “I live in an abandoned trailer that was given to me.”
His arrest was linked to a family get-together where he said tensions arose.
Isaac said there was a fight and left.
He was arrested a few months later when he was stopped.
Isaac was involved with a public defender in prison.
This year, the charges against Isaac were dropped and he is grateful to the public defender who helped him along the way.
“She didn’t see me as a number,” he said.
Initially, public defenders represent all
The Bexar County Public Defender is on duty 24/7 at the Bexar County Jail. They represent each person who is sent to jail when they are brought before the justice of the peace to face charges.
“Magistration is when the judge tells you what your charges are and what your obligations are,” said Robert Hernandez, an attorney with the Bexar County Public Defender’s Office. “This is what happens in the courtroom.”
This small courtroom is located in the prisoner processing center.
“What we’re trying to do is try to get a reasonable amount of bail,” Hernandez said.
He advises those arrested not to discuss their case with a justice of the peace and not to defend their case.
“Every time someone is arrested, we get documentation from the clerk’s office,” he said. “We download it to the computer. We’re checking their file. We read it to make sure there are sufficient grounds for an arrest.”
Once bail is set, some prisoners choose their own lawyers. Some may get a court-appointed attorney, who may be a private attorney chosen by the court.
Others get an attorney from the Bexar County Public Defender’s office.
To be eligible for indigence protection, a person must have a monthly income of $997 or less after deducting basic necessities such as rent, utilities, and groceries.
Who is Clarence Gideon?
The right to a lawyer for those who cannot afford it goes back to Clarence Gideon.
He was arrested in 1961 in Panama City, Florida for breaking into a pool room and stealing booze, soda, and cash.
“The United States Constitution states that under the Sixth Amendment we have the right to be assisted by an attorney in criminal trials,” said Stephanie Stevens, clinical professor of law at St. Mary’s University School of Law.
However, Florida state law at the time granted the right to an attorney to those who could not pay for it if they were prosecuted for a capital offense.
Gideon’s accusation was a felony.
“He had a court where he had to represent himself. I had to call witnesses myself. He had to cross-examine and make opening statements, closing arguments — all the things that lawyers do and all of it on his own,” Stevens said.
Gideon was convicted and sentenced to prison.
He began his appeal there, still acting as his own attorney, eventually sending a handwritten letter to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Then, in 1963, the country’s highest court sided with a man with little money and little education.
“It was a phenomenal decision,” Stevens said. “And, ultimately, this means that anyone accused of a crime who cannot afford a lawyer, and if it is a crime for which a person faces possible imprisonment, they have the right to a court-appointed lawyer at the expense of the state.”
Today, Gideon is celebrated in the world of public defense.
March 18, the day of the Supreme Court’s decision, is known as Gideon’s Day.
Despite Gideon’s influence, not every county has a public defender’s office.
“We need to establish parity so that just because you don’t have the resources to defend yourself, you don’t get left behind,” Stevens said.
Attempts are being made to close this gap with the so-called Managed Assigned Counsel or MAC.
It is a system that allows the selection of private attorneys when necessary to represent low-income clients.
The low-income income threshold is $997 or less per month after deducting expenses such as rent, utilities, and food.
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