DOJ Sides With Criminal Defendants|in Idaho Right-to-Counsel Fight

     (CN) — The Justice Department has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Idaho Supreme Court in support of criminal defendants’ right to sue for violations of their Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
     The DOJ said in its brief filed Wednesday that criminals who can’t afford an attorney and who have effectively been denied adequate representation should be allowed sue before their trial begins, rather than waiting until later to bring their claims.
     “This country is dedicated to the idea that every single person is entitled to equal justice under the law, regardless of wealth or prominence,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said in a statement Thursday. “The right to adequate counsel is an essential safeguard of our commitment to equal justice — and it is the responsibility of the states to protect that right, to uphold that principle, and to ensure that every defendant has access to competent counsel.”
     The DOJ stepped in following an Idaho state court’s decision in Tucker et al. v. State of Idaho et al., which held that the plaintiffs could not bring a prospective claim for constructive denial of counsel prior to conviction.
     Four criminal defendants awaiting trial or sentencing brought the class action. They claim there is a “systemic failure” in Idaho’s public-defender system to provide adequate representation to criminal defendants, resulting in the “constructive denial of counsel for indigent criminal defendants in violation of the Sixth and 14th Amendments.”
     The plaintiff claim that the state’s systemic failure has led to the “wholesale absence of counsel in initial appearances, resulting in plaintiffs’ inability to argue for reduced bail and, consequently unnecessary or extended pretrial detention.”
     It has also led to a lack of investigation of their cases, the inability to meet or communicate with their assigned lawyer, the failure to file motions on their behalf and a “lack of funds to retain necessary experts to challenge the prosecution’s allegations,” the plaintiffs claim.
     Tucker, for example, claims that his court-appointed attorney never showed up to his initial appearance in which bail was set at $40,000, resulting in a three-month stay in jail.
     He says he saw his attorney three times, for a total of 20 minutes, during that period. He adds that he made over 50 unsuccessful attempts to reach his attorney by phone and that no meaningful investigation of his case was performed.
     The plaintiffs claim that thousands of indigent criminal defendants have had similar experiences across Idaho. They say the problem is rooted in deficiencies that include: caseloads that far exceed the national standards; insufficient funding; a lack of oversight, training and performance standards; lack of independence from local boards of commissioners who control hiring, firing and funding; and the use of “fixed-fee” contracts that “create incentives for appointed attorneys to spend as little money and time as possible on indigent clients’ cases, despite the fact that such contracts are prohibited by Idaho code.”
     The plaintiffs sued Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and seven members of the Idaho Public Defense Commission in state court. They sought declaratory relief and an injunction requiring the state to develop a plan to implement a working statewide system of public defense that complies with the Constitution.
     The state moved to dismiss the complaint and the state court granted the motion on Jan. 20. The court held that the plaintiffs’ claims “are not justiciable for three reasons: that plaintiffs lack standing, the case is not ripe and the relief plaintiffs request would require the court to invade the province of the Legislature.”
     The court ruled that the plaintiffs could not bring a prospective civil claim for constructive denial of council.
     The DOJ rejected the state court’s findings, citing in part Avery v. Alabama, which held that “if appointed counsel is denied the opportunity ‘to confer, to consult with the accused and to prepare his defense’ then the appointment of counsel becomes ‘a sham and nothing more than a formal compliance with the Constitution’s requirement that an accused be given the assistance of counsel.”
     The case is now before the Idaho Supreme Court, which will consider whether the claims can proceed.
     In its brief, the Justice Department cites Gideon v. Wainwright, which held that criminal defendants are entitled to adequate representation regardless of whether they have the money to pay for an attorney.
     “The criminal justice system works well only when indigent defendants are adequately represented,” U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson of the District of Idaho said. “The Constitution guarantees this right. The purpose of this brief is to ensure that indigent defendants in Idaho have a meaningful legal tool to effectuate that constitutional right when the provision of public defense is failing on a system-wide level.”
     A similar brief was filed in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Kuren et al. v. Luzerne County et al. in September 2015. The court has yet to make a ruling in that case.

%d bloggers like this: