In Rural Nevada, the Right to Counsel Depends on the Size of Your Wallet

The bleak truth of justice in America is that money matters.

Too often, people who are accused of a crime and cannot afford to hire their own lawyer get herded through the criminal justice system without the zealous defense that our Constitution guarantees. “Innocent until proven guilty” is a cruel and hollow motto when you don’t have an adequate defense, and the government is employing its vast resources to lock you up and take away your freedom.

This isn’t how it’s supposed to work. The presumption of innocence shouldn’t depend on the size of your wallet.

The Constitution demands that the poorest among us are provided an effective defense. That’s why I committed my entire legal career to defending people who can’t afford their own lawyer. It’s also why I am joining the ACLU’s lawsuit against the state and the governor of Nevada for the longstanding and widespread failures of Nevada’s rural public defense system.

I was Nevada’s federal public defender for over two decades. In that role, I supervised a functional public defense system where we did our best to get our clients released pretrial, thoroughly investigated our clients’ cases, regularly communicated with our clients and answered their questions, hired expert witnesses when necessary, poured over discovery, interviewed witnesses, filed motions to suppress evidence that was obtained unconstitutionally, explained the immigration consequences of plea deals to our clients, held the government to its burden of proof at trial, and explored every mitigation avenue possible for clients who were convicted and would be sentenced.

In other words, we were zealous advocates for each and every client, even though they couldn’t afford to pay us. This is what the Constitution requires.

This isn’t what public defense looks like in many of Nevada’s state courts. In these courts, you get a different level of justice depending on who you are and where you are accused of a crime. If you happen to be in rural Nevada — which is most of the state geographically — and you can’t hire your own lawyer, your prospects for getting a good defense are grim.

If you are arrested in Las Vegas or Reno, a lawyer will be assigned to your defense who is subject to the scrutiny of a selection process by criminal defense experts. That lawyer won’t have to choose between revealing your defense strategy to the judge trying the case and getting the resources needed to hire an expert or an investigator. That lawyer will not personally lose money by taking your case to trial or make more money by convincing you to take a plea deal you don’t want to take.

Forty or more miles away, in the cash-strapped rural counties, you’ll get a lawyer who may not have any previous criminal defense experience, who is often paid a flat fee for your case regardless of its complexity, and who also has private paying clients. That means the more time your lawyer spends working on your case, the less money he or she will take home.

Simply put, in rural Nevada, your case, and your liberty, will be no one’s priority.

Perhaps most disturbingly, this crisis is old and persistent news in Nevada. In 2008, the Nevada Supreme Court’s Indigent Defense Commission Rural Subcommittee found that the “rural counties are in crisis in terms of indigent defense.” In 2013, the Sixth Amendment Center published an extensive report on the state of the right to counsel in Nevada and concluded that “serious systemic deficiencies [are] plaguing rural counties.” During the 2015 legislative session, a Senate bill was introduced to solve some of the systemic public defense issues. The bill died in committee.

For the next two years, the status quo continued while the state routinely prosecuted public defendants in rural counties without constitutionally adequate legal representation. Earlier this year, the governor signed into law Senate Bill 377, which created a commission to “make recommendations to the Legislature to improve the provision of public defense services and to ensure that those services are provided in a manner that complies with the standards for the effective assistance of counsel.” In other words, everyone knows the problem exists, but rather than solving it, Nevada just wants to endlessly rediagnose it. Despite years on notice, little has changed for people who need a public defender in Nevada’s rural counties.

It hasn’t always been this way in Nevada. In Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court mandated that the states assure competent lawyers be provided to defendants who need a public defense in their courts. In 1971, Nevada responded, creating an independent State Public Defender Commission to fund and oversee the delivery of public defense services by the state public defender. But in the years since, Nevada has retreated and now largely shirks its constitutional duty, leaving defendants who need a public defender at the mercy of failing county-run and county-funded systems.

The state’s refusal to shoulder its duty to ensure that poor people in Nevada’s rural counties receive adequate representation results in unconscionable inequity. The consequences are real and devastating for people sitting in rural jails, most of whom only see their lawyers a few minutes before a hearing or whose lawyer may shove a life-changing plea agreement at them on a case that hasn’t even been investigated.

This problem has been studied for too long. It’s time for a solution. Adequate defense is a right for all Nevadans, not a privilege reserved for the privileged.

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Dr. Joseph Goebbels

"You give these hicks a little power and right away they think they are going to ride rough shod on you.": John DeLorean circa 1982.

RealJusticeLeague

You want make the judicial system fair? You must require that every person has the right to counsel, but that counsel (lawyer) will be selected at random from a pool for everyone, rich or poor.

The rich will have the right to a lawyer but they cannot hire a lawyer on their own, they must be assigned one. You can consult other lawyers all you want, but the lead counsel in court will be court selected. Same for poor people, you get a lawyer from the same pool.

Eventually this system will root out the “bad”, lazy lawyers just trying to get rich and leave a pool of lawyers who care about the debate and defending clients based on rule, not dollar dollar bills y’all.

Sound socialistic, it might be, but the current system represents only the rich, and those like me, who can lawyer up at seconds notice. Everyone deserves protection from the piggie piggie dogs trying to bite you.

Anonymous

@realjusticeleague

I get it, I like the idea. It’s kinda like when you get stopped by the police or arrested. You don’t get to select the officer so why should you get to select your defender.

Nice homeboi, this way we can put all the beaners and niggers in jail. Shuckamuff.

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Anonymous

Outlook Support Number Amazing post!!

Anonymous

So my son was detained In Carson City, Nevada on November 1st, 2017 around 4am until November 3rd 10am 2017.During that time, when he asked for his one phone call he was told that they were too busy or he missed his chance he never got to make his one call. does this seem right?

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I am so happy to read this. This is the kind of manual that needs to be given and not the random misinformation that's at the other blogs.

Defendant

This is certainly true in Churchill County Nevada (Fallon). There is a District Attorney and 6 Assistant District Attorneys (ADA's) Currently there 3 contracted Public Defenders (PD's) that will be reduced to 2 public defenders as of December 1, 2017. This is a 2 to 1 ratio which smacks of impropriety. As of December 1, 2017 the ration changes to 3 to 1 in favor to the District Attorney because the County is only renewing the contracts for 2 of the Public Defenders.

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