In South Carolina’s municipal courts today, defendants are prosecuted, convicted, and jailed without ever having a lawyer appointed to their case or even being advised of their right to counsel. Hundreds of these defendants who were deprived of counsel—including Tina Bairefoot, Dae’Quandrea Nelson, and Nathan Fox—have been and are incarcerated in local jails and state prisons every year. Cities and towns can decide whether they have municipal courts—they are optional—but if they decide to have them they must follow the Constitution, which includes the right to counsel.
Municipal courts in the City of Beaufort and the Town of Bluffton are denying counsel to poor people facing criminal prosecution and incarceration. These municipalities, like many in the state of South Carolina, are currently violating the constitutional rights of indigent people on a major scale.
There are devastating consequences to these unconstitutional policies that include but are not limited to depriving people of their liberty. They also include the tearing apart of families, physical and emotional harm, and adverse impacts on housing, employment, immigration status, and parental care.
On behalf of their plaintiffs, the ACLU, the ACLU of South Carolina, and Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP filed a class action lawsuit against the City of Beaufort and the Town of Bluffton to address the wrongs of a system that perpetuates wealth-based discrimination and adds to the national epidemic of overincarceration.