SALT LAKE CITY (CN) – The Salt Lake County District Attorney is building a PR empire on the backs of defendants, the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers claims in a state class action. The group claims District Attorney Lohra Miller charges defense attorneys “wildly inflated” fees that “do not reflect actual costs” of copying documents and tapes, and uses the money to fund her office, for which she has created a public relations staff nearly as big as the one in Los Angeles, which has nine times the population and 10 times as many attorneys.
The Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (UACDL) claims that while Miller was increasing fees for discovery, she sought salary increases for herself three times, and adds that whacking just one member of her PR staff “would be more than adequate to cover all of the fees she is trying to extract from defendants who are doing no more than seeking access to the evidence they are entitled to under the United States and Utah Constitutions.”
On June 16, 2009, at Miller’s recommendation, the Salt Lake City Council adopted a schedule of fees to be charged to nonindigent defendants in criminal cases. The attorneys claim the standards used to determine indigence are unduly harsh, that “Someone supporting a family of four who earns just $14.90 an hour will be charged fees to obtain discovery.”
Before June 2009, defense attorneys obtained copies of documents and allied information from prosecutors without charge, according to the complaint in Salt Lake County Court.
“About 80 percent of the approximately 18,000 cases filed by the District Attorney’s Office are assigned to the Salt Lake Public Defender Association,” the UACDL says. But “the schedule of fees does not apply to those represented by public defenders.”
“As is obvious from even a cursory review of the schedule of fees, the fees bear no relationship whatsoever to actual costs,” the attorneys say. For example, the cost per page for black-and-white copies ranges from 75 cents to $3.
The “grossly inflated” charges “fund the district attorney’s outsized salary and her public relations department, which rivals in size that of the Los Angeles district attorney” and “are set to offset budget gaps … not to pay for discovery itself,” according to the complaint.
“Ms. Miller has set fees in order to force defendants – individuals who are presumed innocent – to fund the operation of the District Attorney’s office. Ms. Miller cannot justify the fee imposition by pointing to budgetary concerns. At the same time that Ms. Miller has imposed illegal fees on defendants attempting to obtain discovery materials, she sought three separate increases in her own salary. In fact, she is now paid more than the Attorney General of Utah. At the same time she was imposing fees on defendants, she created a public relations staff that is almost the same size as that of the office of the Los Angeles District Attorney, an agency serving a county more than nine times as populous, with ten times as many attorneys as in the Salt Lake District Attorney’s office. The cost of just one of Miller’s public relations employees would be more than adequate to cover all of the fees she is trying to extract from defendants who are doing no more than seeking access to the evidence they are entitled to under the United States and Utah Constitutions.”
The complaint adds: “Ms. Miller refused to undertake any study, let alone the statutorily required assessment, of the actual costs of providing discovery materials to defendants. Instead, Ms. Miller established a fee schedule based on nothing more than speculation. In a related case, the District Attorney admitted to the Court that it did not do an adequate analysis of the actual costs of preparing discovery, because it could not be bothered. The District Attorney made no effort even to discuss with the Auditor how to make a determination of actual costs, although involvement of the Auditor is mandatory under municipal law. As a result, the fees imposed by Ms. Miller are grossly disproportions to the actual costs of discovery production, and impose improper burdens on defendants. Her fees are significantly higher than the costs recoverable in private litigation by public or private person, whether before the state or federal courts.”
The defense attorneys add: “The effect of the changes imposed by Ms. Miller has been, and will continue to be, to impair the ability of defendants to prepare their cases and to deprive them of meaningful discovery, contrary to both the United States and Utah Constitutions and to improperly burden defendants and their counsel.”
To make it perfectly clear, the attorney say: “Ms. Miller and the county manipulate application of the schedule of fees to increase general revenues and to selectively punish defendants and their counsel.”
The group claims the charges are inconsistent with the Utah Rules of Criminal Procedure, interfere with defendants’ right to a speedy trial, violate the Sixth Amendment “both to the presumption of innocence and to the disclosure by prosecutors of all exculpatory evidence,” and violates Article I, Section 12 of the Utah Constitution, “which guarantees that an accused shall not ‘be compelled to advance money or fees to secure’ his or her rights to a criminal case.”
The fees also delay discovery, which delays trial dates and plea negotiations and raises court costs because cases remain on the docket longer.
The group claims the U.S. Attorney does not charge for discovery, nor does the attorney general of Utah impose fees on discovery for defendants in criminal cases. Neither do Cache, Summit, or Wasatch Counties.
Davis, Weber, and Washington Counties charge a $5 flat fee.
The class of more than 1,000 attorneys is represented by John H. Bogart with Telos VG of Salt Lake City. The want the new charges enjoined, damages for the money already collected, and costs.