In any criminal case a defendant is entitled to an attorney even if they cannot afford one; the same defendant is also entitled to an attorney who is free from a potential conflict of interest.
This normally does not create a problem unless there are multiple co-defendants, who cannot afford a private attorney.
Clearly the public defender would be appointed to represent the first defendant, but what about the others? If the public defender’s office represented more than one defendant there could be a conflict of interest. after all, how could the same office be expected to do what is best for each defendant individually. In any criminal case the defense lawyer must look out for his or her client individually; even if that comes at the expense of others charged. The defense attorney must always be able to use the argument: “the other guy did it” or ” the other guy made my client do it”.
In the past, private attorneys would sign up to represent the other defendants at a pre-arranged, lower cost rate. In 2008, the Legislature decided to drastically reduce the rate that it paid private “conflict attorneys” which caused the list to shrink leaving only a hand full of attorneys.
This created a problem for Manatee County Chief Judge Lee Haworth last May when he was assigned a 15 defendant drug trafficking case. Judge Haworth assigned the public defender for the first defendant then turned to the conflict counsel list and began to make appointments until he ran out of lawyers. That’s when the Judge decided to randomly appoint attorney Gregory Hagopain; the only problem was that attorney Hagopain wanted nothing to do with the case and the small amount of money that the state was willing to pay. Hagopain has been trying to get off of the case ever since his appointment but his pleas have been denied. According to Hagopain the case has 382 witnesses and boxes of discovery that would swamp his one lawyer practice.
This appointment has not been good for the attorney, as he is forced to take time away from his other clients, and the defendant has been forced to have an attorney who does not want to represent him. It is likely that this will become a more common situation as the legislature continues to cut funding for the Florida Judicial System.