Summary Injustice: A Look at Constitutional Deficiencies in South Carolina’s Summary Courts

When a person is accused of a crime, the U.S. Constitution guarantees that person the right to a lawyer even if they cannot afford one. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this basic principle more than a half century ago in Gideon v. Wainwright, and in subsequent cases that expanded the right to misdemeanor prosecutions. Yet this right is violated every day in South Carolina’s magistrate and municipal courts – collectively referred to as summary courts – where scores of people are convicted, sentenced, and sometimes incarcerated, without having been represented by counsel. [Released April 2016]


This report documents the constitutional violations observed by attorneys with NACDL and the ACLU in 27 different summary courts throughout the state during several weeks between December 2014 and July 2015.

This report provides an overview of the magistrate and municipal court system and demonstrates that 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 cannot afford to pay fines to instead serve time in essentially a debtor’s prison. Concerns about bond setting, ineffective or absent advisement of rights, police prosecutors, and disproportionate impact on the poor are brought to light through the stories of individuals who have been adversely affected by this inadequate system.

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