Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Indigent misdemeanants denied lawyers in Williamson County may get relief

Austin attorney Andrea Marsh, Director of the Texas Fair Defense Project (TFDP) has filed a class action lawsuit against three judges in Williamson County and the county itself for failing to provide appointed counsel to indigent misdemeanor defendants.

Nationally, about one in three misdemeanor defendants are represented by appointed counsel; in Williamson County, that figure is 9%, reports Austin's
KUT radio in a profile of one of three lead plaintiffs, Sylvia Marrie Peterson. See also the Austin Statesman's coverage ("Class action lawsuit filed against judges, Williamson County," June 13). The 35-page original complaint is online here. It alleges, in part, that:
Williamson County and the judges who preside over its county courts at law routinely fail to inform persons accused of crime of their right to counsel, provide inaccurate and misleading information about the right to appointed counsel in order to discourage requests for counsel, encourage defendants to waive their right to counsel and speak directly to prosecutors, threaten defendants who assert the right to counsel, and delay or deny appointment of counsel to individuals who request an attorney and are eligible for court-appointed counsel under Texas and federal law.
Since the passage of Texas' Fair Defense Act in 2001, counties statewide witnessed rising indigent defense costs. Those like Dallas that opted for public defender systems have faced much lower rates of cost increase than counties paying private attorneys on a "wheel" system. But for the most part after the Fair Defense Act, all counties increased their percentage of cases using court-appointed attorneys, giving many more defendants access to counsel than before. I don't know the statewide figure (somebody tell me if you do), but I'll guarantee it's a lot higher than 9%. See this analysis on the Fair Defense Project's website comparing what happens in Williamson County to what's supposed to happen under state law.

Some of the allegations in the Williamson County case sound like testimony leading up to passage of that original Texas Fair Defense Act - basically prosecutors and judges bullying defendants into taking a plea bargain without appointed counsel with a motive of reducing costs. KUT quoted a county official citing two reasons judges would be skimpy about appointing counsel for indigent defendants - judges who the public thought were spending too much taxpayer money on attorneys for criminals might be challenged over it in the next election, he sketchily predicted (I don't believe that), and local lawyers wouldn't be happy because it would be "taking money out of their mouths" (I DEFINITELY believe that.)

Leaving aside for a moment the frightful symbolism of attorneys with money coming out of their mouths, neither of those are good reasons for not appointing counsel. If Williamson County wants to arrest and prosecute so many people, they must pay for the full entre', not just drinks and dessert. On a countywide scale, paying for attorneys for every arrested person who can't afford one costs big bucks, but so what? It's a fundamental constitutional right to have an attorney. Welcome to America.

“Williamson County judges and other county employees pressure defendants to talk to prosecutors without giving them accurate information about their right to a defense attorney,” said Andrea Marsh in a TFDP press release yesterday. “No one should be convicted of a crime they didn’t commit or receive a longer sentence because they didn’t understand their right to a lawyer or were denied an attorney even though they were too poor to hire one.”

“We’ve seen hundreds of misdemeanor defendants in Williamson County unwittingly stripped of their right to a lawyer,” said Dominic Gonzales of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC), an organization that has been engaged in court monitoring in Williamson County for over a year. “The Williamson county courts completely fail to meet public expectations of how a fair and impartial court system should work.”

In the interest of full disclosure, Andrea Marsh is a friend and I office at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition where Dominic Gonzales works, though I don't work on this project nor have any personal involvement with the lawsuit.

The irony here is that failing to appoint counsel - or even better, to create a public defender to represent indigent defendants - doesn't really save money. The cliche that comes to mind is "penny wise and pound foolish." Defendants without counsel sit out their time awaiting trial at the taxpayers expense, often getting plea deals only when their time served reaches what they'd likely receive as a max punishment. Jail space statewide is tight, and no one benefits when taxpayers must finance housing, food and medical care for defendants who don't really endanger public safety.

That's why Hidalgo County created a misdemeanor-level PD office last fall - to move cases through the system faster and process everyone who's eligible OUT of the county jail. Promptly appointing counsel for indigent defendants both protects their rigths and saves taxpayers' money overall - a two-fer, if counties will take it. To judge by this lawsuit, a few still need to be prodded.

Good luck to Andrea, Dominic and the lead defendants in this case.


wcnews said...

Great post! I know that Dominic has come to a couple of WCDP meetings trying to get some help on this I hope he was able to get some.

Linked at Eye On Williamson .

Anonymous said...

People should beware of Robert James Purifoy in Plano, Texas. He is 39 yrs old..born 6-30-1967. I am a surviver of his assault on me on 3-18-06.....the day he pointed his 22 semi-automaic rifle at my head. I had him arrested and have no guilt in this and hope justice is served.

Anonymous said...

I feel like things are not right around the Nashville Tn area when it comes to the law. Davidson county is one way with the law, sumner county another way, then Willamson County seems to be even more so strict, then some others. I don't understand how Williamson County can put someone in Jail, a large fine, community service and 1 year probation. Causes for this 1 not showing up for court, payed a cost for that already, 2 times driving on a suspended license, which she now has. This is a 20 year old girl, thank God I have never had a problem with alcohol or drugs, just not such a good driving record. No this is not something I agree with, she needs to obey the Law and maybe this will help. I hope so. Granted I can't help but think about someone I used to know of that was arrested for half a million narcatics, domestic violence, burnt up his girlfriends home but could not be proved. Passing off counter fit money all over Sumner County, among many other things on record. Not to mention he doesn't work unless it's something underhanded. It amazes me how he has spend a minimel time in Jail and always received probation, sent back to where he came from. Once he is off probation he returns to Sumner County for more trouble. Well then there's this 20 year old female girl that works,most of the time 2 jobs, has a baby, does not do drugs nor does she drink except on certain occassions. All that was put on her plus the fines that she has to pay. It really seems it's all about money no matter where you turn, not about a real criminal. While one part of the world, the ones that arn't so bad are having major penelties put upon them the other part that are so bad are slipping through the cracks?? Am I wrong?

Anonymous said...

Why is it that you fell to take care of a speeding ticket in Travis county, and you happen to be stopped by williamson county for nothing they check you out and take you to jail for the Travis county traffic tickets.Brought in at 5:00pm and not booked in a timely matter, They dont even know the charge will be.Its now 11:26pm and still no charge and not booked. Someone really should check out the treatment that they give to a person.If these were animals or minors this would have already stopped.

Anonymous said...

I was refused entry to the courtroom just a month ago in Wilco. Was trying to find court coordinator and stumbled onto an egregious constitutional violation.

A public courtroom. Pitiful.

Anonymous Lawyer