For a criminal defendant to receive a court-appointed lawyer, the defendant cannot merely be unable to afford the representation of an attorney of his or her choosing, but must meet the definition of an indigent. The trial court has the authority to determine whether a defendant is indigent. Some jurisdictions have guidelines based on income that allow individuals meeting the criteria to be presumed indigent. Other jurisdictions, however, do not have any guidelines and must make the determination on a case-by-case basis.
In those states that determine indigence on a case-by-case basis, the court must look at the defendant's total financial circumstances, including his or her income, assets, debts and other financial obligations before deciding if the defendant can afford to pay for an attorney. Thus, just because a defendant is unemployed does not guarantee he or she will be entitled to appointed counsel.
Defendants receiving court-appointed attorneys do not have the right to have an attorney of their choosing. If the court finds that the defendant is indigent, the court will assign a public defender to the defendant. The right to appointed counsel only extends to the trial and the first appeal of the trial court's judgment.