WASHINGTON, DC – Today, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of South Carolina released a new and critically important report, Summary Injustice: A Look at Constitutional Deficiencies in South Carolina’s Summary Courts. In South Carolina, the bulk of criminal cases are low-level offenses heard in municipal and magistrate courts, collectively referred to as summary courts. These courts often fail to inform defendants of the right to counsel, refuse to provide counsel to the poor at all stages of the criminal process, and force defendants who can’t afford to pay fines to instead serve time in jail.
“When you go to a summary court in South Carolina, you find yourself in a judicial netherworld where the police officer who made the arrest acts as the prosecutor, the judge may not have a law degree, and there are no lawyers in sight,” said Susan Dunn, legal director of the ACLU of South Carolina. “By operating as if the Sixth Amendment doesn’t exist, these courts weigh the scales of justice so heavily against defendants that they often receive fines and jail time they don’t deserve.”
This report documents the constitutional violations observed by attorneys with NACDL and the ACLU in 27 different courts throughout the state during several weeks between December 2014 and July 2015, including multiple stories from defendants. The U.S. Constitution guarantees that a person accused of a crime and who faces loss of life or liberty as punishment has the right to a lawyer even if he or she can’t afford one.
“Many, if not most, people will read this report and be shocked by the numerous and profound constitutional deficiencies in South Carolina’s summary courts as observed by NACDL and the ACLU since they began this research in 2014,” said longtime Rock Hill, South Carolina, criminal defense lawyer and NACDL Treasurer Chris Wellborn. “Sadly, as someone who has spent my career representing the criminally accused in South Carolina, I am only able to underscore how pervasively these courts have been disregarding the rights of the people of South Carolina, and that it’s been like this for decades.”
NACDL President E.G. “Gerry” Morris said: “While this important report, and a forthcoming second report to be released later this year, is focused on South Carolina, it is part of a larger initiative to study state level public defense delivery systems across the nation. The ultimate goal is to identify and document weaknesses in different public defense delivery systems that must be remedied as well as to highlight strengths and successes in systems that can and should be replicated elsewhere. More than 50 years after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, the people of America are entitled to nothing less than to have their courts respect the very rights recognized and protected by the Constitution. NACDL will not waver in its mission to shine the light brightly on systems where that is not happening, and to offer policymakers effective solutions to what is quite clearly a widespread problem of constitutional dimensions.”
Additional investigation is underway to systematically gather data from magistrate and municipal courts in several counties across the state. The study will examine the procedures used in municipal and magistrate courts to understand the degree to which the court procedures comply with constitutional requirements. A second report detailing the findings of that research and outlining recommendations is forthcoming later in 2016.
The lead author of Summary Injustice was NACDL Public Defense Training Manager Diane DePietropaolo Price. Contributing authors were NACDL Public Defense Training and Reform Director Colette Tvedt, ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project Staff Attorney Emma Andersson, and former ACLU Advocacy and Policy Counsel Tanya Greene. Research assistance was provided by ACLU of South Carolina Legal Director Susan Dunn and ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project Legal Intern Rachel Shur.
A copy of Summary Injustice can be downloaded at https://www.aclu.org/report/summary-injustice-exposes-south-carolina-courts-convict-and-jail-many-defendants-without.
NACDL’s work in the area of public defense: www.nacdl.org/publicdefense
The ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project: https://www.aclu.org/issues/criminal-law-reform/effective-counsel
The ACLU of South Carolina: http://www.aclusouthcarolina.org/