How the misdemeanor court system railroads indigent defendants to waive their constitutional rights and get jail time for jumping turnstiles, drinking beer underage and panhandling.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers reports
he explosive growth of misdemeanor cases is placing a staggering burden
on America's courts. Defenders across the country are forced to carry unethical
caseloads that leave too little time for clients to be properly represented.
As a result, constitutional obligations are left unmet and taxpayers' money
NACDL's comprehensive examination of misdemeanor courts, including a review
of existing studies and materials, site visits in seven states, an internet survey of defenders,
two conferences, and a webinar, demonstrated that misdemeanor courts
across the country are incapable of providing accused individuals with the due
process guaranteed them by the Constitution. As a result, every year literally millions
of accused misdemeanants, overwhelmingly those unable to hire private counsel,
and disproportionately people of color, are denied their constitutional right to
equal justice. And, taxpayers are footing the bill for these gross inefficiencies.
Legal representation for misdemeanants is absent in many cases. When an attorney
is provided, crushing workloads often make it impossible for the defender to effectively
represent her clients. Counsel is unable to spend adequate time on each
of her cases, and often lacks necessary resources, such as access to investigators,
experts, and online research tools. These deficiencies force even the most competent
and dedicated attorneys to engage in breaches of professional duties. Too often,
judges and prosecutors are complicit in these breaches, pushing defenders and defendants
to take action with limited time and knowledge of their cases. This leads
to guilty pleas by the innocent, inappropriate sentences, and wrongful incarceration,
all at taxpayer expense.
Defenders and judges across the country noted that misdemeanor dockets are clogged with crimes that they believe should not be punishable with expensive incarceration. Right now, taxpayers expend on average $80 per inmate per day1 to lock up misdemeanants accused of things like turnstile jumping, fish and game violations, minor in possession of alcohol, dog leash violations, driving with a suspended license, pedestrian solicitation, and feeding the homeless. These crimes do not impact public safety, but they do have a huge impact on state and local budgets across the country.
The overwhelming caseloads in misdemeanor court put pressure on everyone in the
court system -- defenders, prosecutors and judges -- to resolve cases quickly. Prosecutors
use one time only plea offers to force early pleas. Judges utilize bail determinations
and the threat of pretrial incarceration to encourage early pleas. Defenders,
if they are even involved, note that a better deal might not come along and that they
have no time to fully investigate the client's case. As a result, an extraordinary number of
misdemeanor defendants plead guilty at their first appearance in court, whether or not they committed the crime. Not only is such coercion in stark violation of the Constitution, it also means taxpayers are footing the bill to imprison the innocent, as well as other defendants, whose situation might be better served by alternatives to incarceration.
Misdemeanor courts are rife with violations of professional ethical standards. Defenders countenance caseloads that prohibit them from providing competent representation to their clients. Prosecutors talk directly with defendants and convince them to waive their constitutional rights. Judges encourage defendants to proceed without counsel and plead guilty quickly in order to move dockets. Ethical obligations for all professionals in misdemeanor court should be vigorously enforced to ensure that every defendant receives
a fair and unbiased proceeding.
Often in misdemeanor courts, defendants are not informed of their right to counsel
under the Sixth Amendment, or are coerced into waiving counsel to avoid having to
spend additional time in jail awaiting the appointment. Sometimes they are even required to pay an application fee in order to obtain the counsel that is guaranteed by the Constitution.
Time and time again site team observers watched individuals plead guilty without counsel.
Judges actually acknowledge the widespread violation o
f Sixth Amendment rights. For
example, Chief Justice Jean Hoefer Toal of the Supreme Court of South Carolina told a
group of attorneys at a state bar meeting, "Alabama v. Shelton is one of the more misguided
decisions of the United States Supreme Court ... so I will tell you straight up we
[are] not adhering to Alabama v. Shelton in every situation."
Judges and prosecutors routinely speak directly to defendants and seek waivers of counsel
in order to resolve the case more quickly. In Colorado, a state statute provides that a
misdemeanor defendant must engage in plea negotiations with a prosecutor before the defendant can receive appointed defense counsel.
Thanks to ACLU blog