ACLU Joins Lawsuit Over Cities’ Shockingly Deficient Public Defense System

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
August 10, 2011 12:00 am

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Today, the ACLU of Washington joined a class action lawsuit filed in June by three defendants in Skagit County jail against Mount Vernon and Burlington over the cities’ failure to provide meaningful assistance of counsel to indigent persons who face criminal charges in municipal court. The suit says that the cities fail to impose reasonable caseload limits on attorneys, fail to monitor the public defense system, and fail to provide adequate funding to the system. The suit is pending in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

“The public defenders in Mount Vernon and Burlington have shockingly huge caseloads that make it impossible for them to represent their clients,” said Sarah Dunne, legal director at ACLU-WA. Dunne further remarked that, “The right to be represented by an attorney is a fundamental right guaranteed by the constitutions of the United States and Washington. The cities are not meeting their duty to ensure that low-income individuals have a fair chance to defend themselves in court.”

Previously, the ACLU-WA and Columbia Legal Services, with pro bono assistance from the law firms of Perkins Coie and Garvey Schubert Barer, pursued a lawsuit against Grant County over its public defense system. In settlement of that suit, Grant County in 2005 agreed to overhaul its system and undergo court-supervised monitoring for a period of six years in order to ensure compliance.

Mount Vernon and Burlington jointly contract with two attorneys to provide all of the public defense services in those jurisdictions. In 2010, these two attorneys were responsible for handling more than 2,100 public defense misdemeanor cases. Under the Standards for Indigent Defense Services adopted by the Washington State Bar Association, a full-time public defender should not have more than 400 such cases per year. The limit is even lower for attorneys working on a part-time basis. The attorneys who contract with Mount Vernon and Burlington spend no more than a third of their time on public defense work, which should allow for a maximum of 267 misdemeanor cases per year between the two of them.

The suit (Wilbur v. City of Mount Vernon) says that excessive caseloads and inadequate monitoring by the cities have resulted in a public defense system that deprives indigent persons of their constitutional rights. Among other things, it is alleged that the attorneys do not investigate the charges filed against indigent persons, do not respond to communications from indigent persons, do not meet with indigent persons in advance of court, and do not stand with or represent indigent persons during court hearings.

Mount Vernon and Burlington have agreed to extend their contract with the attorneys for an additional two years, despite the fact that there are numerous complaints on file about these attorneys. In December 2008, for example, the Skagit County Office of Assigned Counsel e-mailed city officials to inform them that indigent persons in Mount Vernon and Burlington will “go to court, come to our office, and [go] again to court with no attorney there to represent them even though counsel has been appointed.” One low-income person charged in Mount Vernon wrote: “I have not been fairly represented by either [attorney]. They have neglected to help my case at all. I would like a new public defender appointed to my cases please. Someone who will go over my case w/ me, discuss my options, meet w/ me before court, [etc.].”

City officials have even received e-mails from Mount Vernon police officers who complain about the difficulty they have in contacting the public defenders, noting “we are not getting the service that is their obligation to perform.” Mount Vernon police officers, the chief of police, and the city attorney have all complained that police consistently were unable to contact the defenders after hours, forcing them to resort to contacting other attorneys through the phone book after making an arrest.

The suit is being litigated by attorneys Toby Marshall of Terrell Marshall Daudt & Willie PLLC and Matt Zuchetto of The Scott Law Group, PS, ACLU-WA staff attorneys Sarah Dunne and Nancy Talner, and ACLU-WA cooperating attorneys James Williams and J. Camille Fisher of Perkins Coie.

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