Should I hire a public defender or a private attorney for a Houston DWI?

By Jose Ceja
Managing Attorney

DWI is one of the most common criminal offenses in the Houston area. If you are arrested for DWI in Houston, you will be given a court date soon after your arrest. The process for defending a DWI can be slow, and in general, you should expect a DWI to take several months to handle properly. One of the first decisions that you must make is whether you will represent yourself (which is not advisable), apply for a court appointed attorney, or hire your own attorney. This article discusses some points to consider when choosing between a court-appointed attorney or private attorney for a Houston DWI arrest. 

Why you should not represent yourself on a DWI

First, it is important to understand why representing yourself on a DWI is a very bad idea. There is no question that an experienced attorney is needed to represent you in a DWI case. A non-attorney (and even an attorney who is not a criminal lawyer) will not have an understanding of DWI law and not know how to handle even the basic aspects of a criminal case, such as requesting evidence and understanding the consequences of a plea agreement. 

DWIs are some of the most technically complex cases in Texas, and being able to effectively defend a DWI requires a thorough understanding of the law of searches and seizures (which controls traffic stops, detentions, and search warrants), police DWI investigations, driver’s license hearings and the science of breath and blood testing. Additionally, if your DWI goes to trial, a defendant representing himself would be at a huge disadvantage trying the case against trained prosecutors. Representing yourself on a DWI charge is clearly the worst of the three options.

How soon do I need to decide whether to hire my own lawyer or a public defender? 

After a DWI arrest, there is no immediate urgency to hire a DWI lawyer or have a court-appointed attorney assigned to your case. In Houston, a week or so after you are released from jail, you will have a court date, and nothing bad will happen if you do not bring an attorney to court with you. At your first court date, the judge will typically ask you if you intend to hire your own attorney or wish to apply for a court-appointed attorney. 

The only deadline to keep in mind relates to a potential administrative suspension of your driver’s license through an Administrative License Revocation (ALR) case. The ALR case is totally separate from your criminal case and involves a potential 90- or 180-day suspension of your Texas driving privileges. After a DWI arrest, you must typically make a request to fight the suspension of your driver’s license within 15 days. 

What is the advantage of being appointed a court-appointed attorney?

Of course, the main advantage of a court-appointed attorney is cost. If the court determines that you are eligible for a court-appointed attorney, you will not have to pay for your representation, which can save you thousands of dollars. In Houston, having a court-appointed attorney as your lawyer means that an attorney from the Harris County Public Defender’s Office (HCPDO), or a private attorney that accepts court appointments, will be assigned to handle your DWI. There are excellent attorneys who accept court-appointed work and who work at the HCPDO. Unfortunately, however, you do not get to choose the attorney that you want. 

What is the advantage of a private attorney for a DWI case?

There are several advantages to hiring your own attorney for a DWI case. First, you can choose the best attorney that you can find, taking into account all the factors that should be considered when hiring a DWI attorney. These factors include the attorney’s cost, their relevant experience and training, their familiarity with the court, and their accessibility and communication style. 

As noted above, DWIs are very technical and specialized cases, and experience matters a great deal in maximizing your chances of getting an excellent result. Although there are some court appointed lawyers with extensive training in DWIs, you do not get to choose your court-appointed attorney and you cannot ask questions regarding their qualifications beforehand. 

Although it is difficult to generalize, very frequently, court-appointed attorneys have a much higher caseload than private DWI lawyers. This may affect their availability to focus on your case and be available to answer questions and offer guidance. Additionally, they may not be able to handle the ALR case against your driver’s license since that matter is considered to be separate from your criminal case (technically, the ALR case is a civil proceeding). Similarly, if your license is suspended, a court-appointed attorney may not be able to help you obtain an occupational driver’s license.

If you have been arrested for DWI and would like to hire an attorney to handle your DWI and driver’s license hearing, Ceja Law Firm is an excellent choice. Attorney Jose Ceja is a former prosecutor who has hundreds of hours of specialized training in all issues affecting DWIs and intoxication-related offenses. Call Ceja Law Firm today for a free consultation. 

About the Author
Jose Ceja is the managing attorney of Ceja Law Firm. He has practiced law since 2007 and has devoted his career to the practice of criminal law. Mr. Ceja began his legal career as a felony drug prosecutor, where he prosecuted drug, gang, and violent offenses. Mr. Ceja has first or second chaired almost 100 trials, including murders, drug cases, DWIs, and assaults. In his career as a defense attorney, he has regularly obtained dismissals, not guilty verdicts, and grand jury “no bills” in a wide variety of cases.