Public Defender FAQ's


Established after the landmark 1963 United States Supreme Court case, Gideon v. Wainwright, Public
Defenders serve across the United States defending those who are indigent against criminal

It is the duty of the Public Defender to provide competent and zealous legal representation to those
who may face jail time as a result of criminal prosecution. This means that you can apply for a Public
Defender under any trial for Misdemeanor, Felony, violation of Probation/Parole, for certain traffic
offenses involving Driving with a Suspended License, for violating a Protection From Abuse Order,
Extradition hearings, and any appeals for those prosecutions.

Juvenile defendants, under the law, are automatically entitled to representation by a Public Defender if
they desire it.

The Clarion County Public Defender offers these services at no initial cost to those that qualify for
representation. Eligibility is based on the Federal Poverty Guidelines. Additionally, the office is funded
entirely through the County government; the Clarion County Public Defender does not receive any
funding from the federal or state government.

Office Information:
Phone: 814‐226‐7380
Fax: 814‐226‐7698

Chief Public Defender: Erich R. Spessard, Esq.
Asst. Public Defender: Michael S. Marshall, Esq.
Legal Administrative Asst.: Donna Gallagher


8:30am—12:00pm, 1:00pm—4:30pm
Closed for most major holidays.


Frequently Asked Questions


Is a Public Defender a real attorney?

Yes. All Public Defenders have had the same training as any other private attorney. This typically
includes a college degree, followed by three years in law school. All Public Defenders must be
licensed attorneys and therefore must also pass the bar exam in order to practice law.
What is the difference between a Public Defender and a Private Attorney?
The biggest difference is time. A Public Defender will always have far more cases than a Private
Attorney. A Private Attorney will typically have more time to go into more detail with you or your
specific case, while a Public Defender may have considerably less time to spend—depending on your

Do I have to have an Attorney/Public Defender?

Under the law, you are not required to have an attorney and you may represent yourself. This is
called proceeding pro se (pro‐SAY). In most cases, it is not advisable to represent yourself; you will be
bound to the same rules of procedure and conduct that an attorney is, which you may not be familiar.
What if someone else already has the Public Defender and they are involved in my case?
This is called a conflict of interest. If it is determined that there is a conflict, the Public Defender will
ask the Court to appoint an attorney outside of the office to represent you. You do not get to request
which attorney you are appointed.

Will my Public Defender fight for me?

Absolutely. Under the Rules of Professional Conduct for all attorneys, a Public Defender must
competently and zealously advocate on your behalf. An attorney may not, however, knowingly lie for
you, help you commit a crime, or mislead the court. Keep in mind that a good attorney should not
mislead you on what a realistic outcome for your case can be. Often, a Public Defender will advise
you of the legal issues in your case, how good the District Attorney’s offer is, and the strength of a
case that goes to trial. Just because a Public Defender suggests that a plea offer is a good deal does
not mean that he will not advocate on your behalf at any future negotiations, hearings, or trial.


Doesn’t the Public Defender work for the District Attorney?

No. The Public Defender and the District Attorney are completely separate offices. The Public
Defender does not answer to the District Attorney, and the District Attorney does not supervise the
Public Defender. While attorneys for both sides are socially polite to one another, there is respect
and recognition that once court is in session each side is advocating for his or her individual client
against the other—regardless of whether it is the Commonwealth or the Defendant.


I REALLY don’t have to pay anything for the Public Defender?

Usually. In the vast majority of cases, no expense is required to be paid on the part of a client for
defense services—regardless of whether you win or lose or anywhere in between. It is possible,
however, that certain expenses—such as acquiring certain documents, retaining particular experts, or
requesting the presence of a particular witness could require at least a good faith payment.


Am I eligible for the Public Defender?

Possibly. The Public Defender considers all forms of income and any assets valued at over $500 to
determine whether or not you are indigent. The qualification guidelines are based on the US Poverty
Guidelines. Unfortunately, it is possible that an individual does not feel they can afford a Private
Attorney, but is not considered eligible for a Public Defender.

Can the Public Defender represent me for my speeding ticket/request for PFA/child custody case/return
of property dispute, etc.?

No. The Public Defender may only get involved in Criminal Prosecutions that may likely lead to
incarceration. Civil cases – most cases that do not directly involve whether or not a person goes to jail
‐‐ are not eligible for representation.

How does a case proceed?

Typically, a case starts with a citation or arrest, followed by a preliminary arraignment. A preliminary
arraignment is where the Magisterial District Judge sets bail. Depending on the bail, and whether or
not a person can post the bail, he may be taken to jail until bail is posted. A date for the Preliminary
Hearing is then set. The preliminary hearing is where the Commonwealth needs to only prove a prima
facie case – this is sometimes called a probable cause hearing. If the Commonwealth succeeds at this
hearing, or the Defendant waives it, the case will proceed to the Common Pleas Court. Once at the
Common Pleas Court, the District Attorney and the Defense Attorney will have plea negotiations over
the following months along with investigating leads on the case. Eventually, the Judge will request
that the parties come to a decision on the case and request that the sides either enter a plea bargain
or go to trial. If a jury trial is requested, a jury will be picked, and a trial date will be set. If a bench
trial (Judge Only) is requested, the date will be set. If the defendant is found guilty, a sentencing date
will be set. If the Defendant is found not guilty—they are released from the charge(s).


If I ignore everything, will the charges eventually go away?

Unless you plan on moving out of the Country permanently, No. This typically makes it harder to
represent you, and could even cause you to serve a few days in jail, because you ignored a court
What do I need to apply for the Public Defender?
Try to have copies of all forms of income that you receive to prove your income. This can be in the
form of multiple and most recent pay stub, a W‐2 Tax form, a 1040 Tax Form, an awards letter from
Social Security, a bank statement showing deposits, statement of benefits for Food Stamps, any court
orders showing you receive or pay child support or alimony, statements from any pension or
retirement plan, among other things. You will also need a copy of your ID or Driver’s License, a copy
of the criminal complaint, and if you are under 26, proof that you are not claimed by your parents or
another individual. If you are claimed by your parents or someone else, you need proof of their
income to be qualified.