What do Public Defenders do?
Public defenders represent people accused of committing a crime who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. In Nashville, public defenders also represent children charged with being delinquent. The Juvenile Division of the Nashville Public Defender’s office also has a Guardian Ad Litem program, and a program that provides educational advocacy for special education students in Metro Public Schools. Learn more about these programs by clicking here.
Can the Public Defender’s Office help me with legal issues other than criminal cases, like child support?
The Public Defender’s Office does not represent anyone in any type of civil case, such as child support, contempt, order of protection hearings, divorces, or traffic tickets (which are different than state citations). We do not represent adults in any juvenile court proceedings.
Who is eligible for a Public Defender?
If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer for your criminal case, you may qualify for a public defender. Qualification is based on your income. If your case is in General Sessions Court, you will qualify for a public defender if your annual income is below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines. If your case is in Criminal Court, the Judge will determine if you qualify for a public defender based on your income.
How do I get a Public Defender?
If you have been arrested on a warrant or received a state citation in Davidson County and you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, you will need to come to our Office to see if you qualify for our services. Our address is 404 James Robertson Parkway, Suite 2022, Nashville, TN 37219, which is on the 20th floor of the Parkway Towers Building (directly across the street from Municipal Auditorium in downtown Nashville). We are open from 8:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Please arrive prior to 3:45 p.m. if you need to apply to have an attorney represent you. The last intake screenings for appointment of an attorney begin at 3:45 p.m. daily. You should come as soon as possible after your arrest. If you have been arrested on an indictment, or your case has been bound over to the Grand Jury, the Criminal Court judge hearing your case will decide whether to appoint a public defender to represent you. This usually happens at arraignment. If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, you should tell the Judge at your arraignment, and he or she will ask you to provide information about your income. The Judge will then decide whether to appoint a lawyer to represent you.
Can I get a Public Defender over the phone, or do I have to come to the office?
If your case is in General Sessions Court, you must come to our Office to apply for our services. You cannot apply for our services over the phone, except if you live outside of Tennessee and you are unable to travel back to Nashville before your court date. If your case is in Criminal Court, you must ask the Judge to appoint us to represent you.
What is the difference between a public defender and a court appointed attorney?
The Public Defender’s Office employs full-time attorneys to represent our clients. Although we represent the majority of the people in Nashville who receive appointed counsel, we cannot represent everyone. For example, if two or more people are charged with committing a crime together, our Office can only represent one of them. If more than one defendant qualifies for court-appointed counsel, the Judge will usually appoint our Office to represent one of them, and private attorneys to represent the others. These private attorneys are not public defenders, but they serve as court-appointed counsel.
Are Public Defenders licensed attorneys?
Yes. The Public Defender and all Assistant Public Defenders in Nashville are licensed attorneys who have graduated from law school and passed the Tennessee bar exam.
Does my public defender work for the State?
No – public defenders work for their clients. The rules of ethics we must follow as lawyers require us to advocate for our clients, and only our clients, at all times, regardless of how we are paid. Public defenders in Nashville are not employed by the State of Tennessee – they are employees of Metro Government.
I received a state citation. What do I do?
If you have received a state citation, you have been charged with committing a crime. While this may not seem serious, you should not appear in court without a lawyer. The law can be complicated, and neither the District Attorney nor the Judge is required to explain to you all the laws important to your case. If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, you should come to the Public Defender’s Office before your first court appearance to see if you qualify for us to represent you. That court date is listed on the bottom right corner of your citation. We recommend that you come in as soon as possible after receiving your citation, and at least 2 days before your court date.
I missed my court date in General Sessions court. What do I do?
If you miss a court appearance, the Judge usually issues a warrant for your arrest (also called a capias). If this happens and you have a lawyer, you should contact your lawyer immediately for help. If you do not have a lawyer, the Public Defender’s Office may be able to help you have this warrant “set aside,” and a new court date scheduled. You should come to our Office as soon as you can to apply for our help. If we are unable to help you, you will need to turn yourself in to police to be served with the warrant.
My attorney never answers the phone when I call. Why is that?
Attorneys can be hard to reach by phone because they are often away from their desks – in court, visiting clients at the jail, or in meetings. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays are busy court days in Nashville – especially in the mornings. If you are unable to reach your attorney by phone, you should leave a message for him or her about why you are calling. You can also write your lawyer a letter, or ask your lawyer if there is a time that is best for you to call.
Can I get convictions erased or “expunged” from my criminal record?
Most convictions in Tennessee cannot be expunged from someone’s criminal record, even if the conviction is several years old. A conviction occurs when you plead guilty to a crime, or when a judge finds you guilty of a crime after a trial. A law passed in 2011 in Tennessee allows someone with a single conviction on his or her record to have that conviction expunged, but ONLY for certain misdemeanor and E felony offenses, and ONLY if the defendant has met certain conditions and pays the expunction fee. If you qualify for our services, the Public Defender’s Office may be able to help you determine if you qualify for this expunction. You can also contact the Criminal Court Clerk’s Office to apply for this expunction.
I am unhappy with my public defender or court-appointed lawyer. Can I get another lawyer?
The short answer is, usually not. If you are represented by the Public Defender’s Office, we want to do our best to address any concerns you may have about your lawyer. You should first discuss the problem with your lawyer — he or she may be able to fix the problem. If that does not help, you should speak to the lawyer’s supervisor. The supervisor will hear your concerns, and attempt to find the best solution. Usually, that does not involve changing lawyers. If your lawyer is a court-appointed attorney, only the Judge can appoint a different lawyer to represent you. The Public Defender’s cannot assist you with this, and we cannot discuss your complaints about your lawyer with you. If you are unhappy with your lawyer, you should discuss the problem with your lawyer first. If you cannot work out your problems with your lawyer, you can ask him or her to see if the Judge will appoint someone else to represent you.
My loved one has been arrested and is in jail. How can I find out what will happen to him/her?
The Public Defender’s Office has a handbook called “Take This Book,” which outlines the criminal court process for defendants and their family members. It provides a lot of useful information, and can be accessed by clicking here. A Spanish version is also available here. For more specific information, you should find out who the attorney is representing your loved one, and contact him or her directly.
I owe court costs on my criminal court cases, but I cannot afford to pay them. What can I do?
You may petition the court for a waiver of your costs by filing an indigency petition. However, waiver of your costs is not guaranteed. The Judges have the authority to waive your costs in whole or in part. This authority is used at the Judge’s discretion. If you file an indigency petition you will have to make a court appearance for the hearing in this matter. You should expect to give sworn testimony regarding your income, expenses, dependents and your living situation. An attorney can assist you with this process or you may petition the court on your own behalf (pro se). To view an example of a Pro Se indigency motion, click here. *Please note: some Judges require that you wait until the end of your probationary period or your release from custody before petitioning for a waiver of your costs.