When a person is accused of a crime, the U.S. Constitution guarantees that person the right to a lawyer even if he or she 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.
Rush to Judgment: How South Carolina’s Summary Courts Fail to Protect Constitutional Rights (January 2017)
In response to disturbing stories of constitutional violations uncovered by NACDL and ACLU attorneys documented in 2016’s Summary Injustice report (below), NACDL undertook additional investigation of South Carolina’s summary courts. Law students and legal professionals gathered information about court proceedings in five South Carolina counties over three months in the winter and spring of 2016, the results of which are published in this follow-up report. Each day, the team observed court hearings in various venues, observing individuals charged with everything from shoplifting to driving offenses to unlawful possession of tobacco and alcohol. In every court studied for this report, the team found egregious, repeated constitutional violations happening daily and in hundreds of cases. In the months of court watching and data collection, researchers documented numerous findings, all of which are set forth in the Rush to Judgment report.
Findings from this study and Summary Injustice lead NACDL to suggest the following five recommendations for reform to ensure that South Carolina’s courts operate in accordance with constitutional mandates and guarantee procedural justice for those whose lives will forever be altered as a result of a criminal adjudication:
- Staff South Carolina’s summary courts with prosecutors and public defenders and ensure that courts are presided over by judges who are licensed attorneys.
- Reduce the caseload of magistrate and municipal courts by decriminalizing traffic offenses.
- Reduce fines and fees, and consider alternative sanctions for those who cannot afford to pay.
- Increase uniform reporting of criminal and traffic cases in summary courts to include data regarding whether defendants had counsel and whether and how defendants were informed of their rights.
- Enact uniform procedures for magistrate and municipal courts regarding advisement of rights and plea colloquies. Ensure that all defendants understand their rights and the direct and collateral consequences of a guilty plea or verdict.
Summary Injustice: A Look at Constitutional Deficiencies in South Carolina’s Summary Courts (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. Summary Injustice 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.
News of Interest
- NACDL News Release - Rush to Judgment, January 18, 2017.
- Study cites due process violations in low-level courts as Charleston officials tout 'groundbreaking' improvement, by Andrew Knapp, The Post and Courier, January 22, 2017.
- NACDL News Release - Summary Injustice, April 4, 2016.
- "In S.C.’s lowest criminal courts, the poor suffer without attorneys, study by ACLU, lawyers finds," by Andrew Knapp, The Post and Courier, April 3, 2016.
- "National study reports injustice in state's lower courts," by Tim Smith, The Greenville News, April 4, 2016.
- "'Summary Injustice: A Look at Constitutional Deficiencies in South Carolina's Summary Courts," Sentencing Law and Policy Blog, April 4, 2016.
- "National study reports injustice in SC's lower courts," by Tim Smith, The State, April 4, 2016.
- "Few Lawyers and Little Justice in South Carolina's Lower Courts, Study Finds," by Rebecca McCray, TakePart, April 4, 2016.
- "National study reports injustice in SC's lower courts," by Tim Smith, The Island Packet, April 5, 2016.
- "The Marshall Project Opening Statement," Edited by Andrew Cohen, April 5, 2016.
- "Morning links: South Carolina municipal courts under fire," by Radley Balko, 'The Watch' Blog, The Washington Post, April 5, 2016.
- "Study shows SC's poor often underrepresented in court," by Zach Fox, Spartanburg Herald Journal, April 6, 2016.
- "SC's poor often lack lawyer in court, study says," by Jeff Jeffrey, South Carolina Lawyers Weekly, April 12, 2016.