CHARLESTON, SC — The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of South Carolina, and Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough filed a class-action lawsuit today challenging South Carolina municipal courts’ unconstitutional practices of denying lawyers to people who can’t afford private attorneys and are sentenced to incarceration. In the city of Beaufort and the town of Bluffton’s municipal courts, people are prosecuted, convicted, sentenced, and jailed without being providing public defenders, or even advised of their right to counsel, violating the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments.
“Here I was in front of a judge who could send me to jail, and I had no lawyer and didn’t know how to defend myself. It was terrifying,” said Tina Bairefoot, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who couldn’t afford an attorney. She was charged in Beaufort County with shoplifting and the municipal court prosecuted and convicted her without a lawyer. Ms. Bairefoot was sentenced to 30 days in jail.
The lawsuit details proceedings in these courts in which people facing possible jail time must fend for themselves without any legal training, against criminal charges.
“Many municipal courts in South Carolina make justice for poor people almost impossible,” said Ezekiel Edwards, Director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “By failing to appoint lawyers for individuals who can’t afford them, these courts fail to protect the constitutional rights of hundreds of South Carolinians through criminal proceedings that violate nationally recognized standards of judicial fairness.”
The majority of South Carolina’s 212 municipalities refuse to appoint counsel to people who can’t afford attorneys. Each year, these counties and cities charge thousands of poor people with criminal offenses and then subject them to prosecution without a lawyer.
“Thousands of South Carolinians are shoved through the municipal court process without attorneys, their chances of a fair hearing slim to none. These courts have enormous power over people’s lives, and they abuse it, sending people to jail after legal proceedings in which they had no lawyer,” said Susan Dunn, Legal Director of the ACLU of South Carolina. “The consequences of incarceration can be severe for people and their families, their jobs, and their futures.”
Across the country, cities and towns establish municipal courts to handle low-level misdemeanor and traffic offenses occurring within city or town limits. In South Carolina, in fiscal year 2015-2016, more than 420,000 cases were filed in the state’s municipal courts.
“South Carolina’s Constitution makes it optional for a city or town to establish a municipal court. Providing public defenders isn’t optional. When a city or town chooses to have a municipal court, they must run it fair and square. Instead, we have courts that routinely put poor defendants at an insurmountable disadvantage by denying them lawyers,” said Stuart M. Andrews, a partner of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough.
For the complaint and more information about the lawsuit:
ACLU of South Carolina:
For more information about Nelson Mullins:
For more information about municipal courts in South Carolina: