Washington, DC (Oct. 20, 2017) – Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal class action lawsuit against the City of Beaufort and the Town of Bluffton, both in South Carolina. The U.S. Constitution's Sixth Amendment guarantees that a person accused of a crime has the right to a lawyer, whether or not the individual can afford to hire one. In South Carolina, the bulk of criminal cases are offenses heard in municipal and magistrate courts, collectively referred to as summary courts. As explained in the ACLU press release, the suit challenges "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 provided public defenders, or even advised of their right to counsel, violating the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments."
The complaint cites two important reports commissioned by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) exposing the pervasive violations of constitutional rights in South Carolina's summary courts. Last year, NACDL released its first report on South Carolina's summary courts, Summary Injustice: A Look at Constitutional Deficiencies in South Carolina's Summary Courts. This first report was a joint project with the ACLU and the ACLU of South Carolina. Then, earlier this year, NACDL released its second report on South Carolina's summary courts, Rush to Judgment: How South Carolina's Summary Courts Fail to Protect Constitutional Rights.
The complaint asserts that even after the release of the reports and the media coverage thereof, including a January 21, 2017, top story in the Post and Courier, the City of Beaufort and Town of Bluffton "continued to maintain a policy, practice, and custom of depriving indigent defendants of access to public defenders in municipal court while those defendants continued to be convicted and sentenced to jail" and that "[b]y doing so, Defendants City of Beaufort and Town of Bluffton have shown deliberate indifference to their duty to provide indigent defense and to the constitutional rights of defendants in their municipal courts." (Complaint, paras. 50-52.)
"We applaud the filing of this action," said NACDL President Rick Jones. "No one, not one person, should be deprived of their constitutional right to counsel in South Carolina or anywhere else in the United States. NACDL will continue its research into the state of the right to counsel across the nation and strongly urges all jurisdictions to immediately take steps to ensure that this fundamental right is fulfilled in all criminal cases."
As demonstrated in the reports, these courts routinely fail to inform defendants of their right to counsel and refuse to provide counsel to the poor at all stages of the criminal process. South Carolina summary courts also regularly violate the Constitution by sentencing defendants to jail simply because they cannot afford to pay fines.
Rush to Judgment and the April 2016 report, Summary Injustice, can both be downloaded at www.nacdl.org/summaryinjustice.
On October 18, 2017, NACDL released an in-depth podcast, "South Carolina's Sixth Amendment-Free Zones," featuring Diane DePietropaolo Price, who served until recently as NACDL's Public Defense Training Manager, and Dr. Alisa Smith, the Chair of the Department of Legal Studies at the University of Central Florida. Diane was the lead author of the 2016 Summary Injustice report. Dr. Smith was the lead researcher and co-author of Rush to Judgment.
NACDL's work in South Carolina is a part of a larger undertaking by the nation's criminal defense bar. NACDL is working in states across the nation to ensure the guarantees of the Sixth Amendment are secured for all persons accused of wrongdoing.
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To learn more about NACDL's extensive work in the area of public defense, please visit www.nacdl.org/publicdefense.
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