How do you know whether you qualify for the public defender? Have you already applied and been rejected?
If it's the first court appearance, tell the judge that you would like to have the public defender appointed. The court will probably have you fill out a financial declaration, stating how much money you make and your expenses. The court clerk will then evaluate your finances to see if you qualify.
If you don't qualify, the judge will probably give you time to hire a lawyer. That means trying to hire someone, not just deciding you can't afford it. If you talk to several lawyers and get a fee quote, and still can't afford to hire one of them, you can tell the judge what you've tried and ask again to have the public defender appointed.
(Don't try to fool the judge. I was once sitting in court when a guy told the judge he'd paid me to appear, but I wasn't there. The judge looked at me and said, "Mr. Marshall, have you ever met Mr. Defendant?" Things did not go well for him after that.)
Please understand that this is a general discussion of legal principles by a California lawyer and does not create an attorney/client relationship. It's impossible to give detailed, accurate advice based on a few sentences on a website (and you shouldn't provide too much specific information about your legal matter on a public forum like this site, anyway). You should always seek advice from an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction who can give you an informed opinion after reviewing all of the relevant information.
Explain to the judge using balance sheets and cash flow how you advance above the threshold for public defender and yet below a threshold level of non-affordability. You may want to fill out the schedules for a chapter 7 bankruptcy to help your organize your showing to the judge. These forms are great for their ability to give a viewer a snapshot view of a persons financial health. You might even end up filing a chapter 7 or 13 based upon what you realize as a result of using the forms as a help. Failing that, have your CPA prepare a balance sheet, cash flow, and sources and uses of funds to give a more professional complete picture. If the showing is strong, the judge may find an extraordinary circumstance.
Patent & Tax Law Attorney
Certified Tax Specialist by the California Board of Legal Specialization
This communication is general information and not legal advice, and does not create an attorney-client relationship.
This communication should not be relied upon as any type of legal advice. Please note that no attorney-client relationship exists between the sender and the recipient of this message in the absence of either (1) a signed fee contract and (2) remission of an agreed-upon retainer. Absent such an agreement and retainer, I am not engaged by you as an attorney, nor is any other member of my law firm.
If, based on your financial information, the judge states that you do not qualify, and you return to court after talking with some attorneys and tell the judge you could not afford to hire anyone, the judge will sometimes, at that point, grant you a public defender. However, if you own a home, or make significant income the judge will stick to his/her guns. Many law firms, including my office, accept payments. Call some local attorneys and see if you can work something out. Good luck to you and don't plead guilty!