Federal Court Finds Public Defense System Violates Constitutional Rights of Indigent Defendants

News Release: 
Thursday, December 5, 2013

In a resounding ruling for fairness in the criminal justice system, the U.S. District Court in Seattle has found that the public defense system of Mt. Vernon and Burlington deprives indigent persons who face misdemeanor criminal charges of their fundamental right to assistance of counsel.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik found that the system is broken to such an extent that “the individual defendant is not represented in any meaningful way, and actual innocence could conceivably go unnoticed and unchampioned.” The court is requiring the cities to hire a supervisor to ensure their defense system complies with constitutional standards, and the court is keeping jurisdiction over the case for three years while reforms proceed.

“The right to be represented by an attorney if you can’t afford one is essential to ensuring that everyone – rich and poor alike – has a fair chance to defend themself in court. We’re thrilled to obtain a ruling enforcing that principle for towns in Washington,” said ACLU-WA legal director Sarah Dunne. She noted that the case sends a strong message to jurisdictions throughout the state.  “If you’re not running a public defense system that complies with the constitution, you’d better fix it,” Dunne said.

Filed in 2011, the class action suit (Wilbur v. City of Mount Vernon) challenged the cities’ public defense system for systematically failing to provide meaningful assistance of counsel as required by the U.S. and Washington constitutions. A two-week trial in the case was held in June 2013, with additional briefing submitted in August.

In its ruling, the court found that the cities’ public defenders had excessively high caseloads, rarely provided an opportunity for the accused to confer with them in a confidential setting, rarely engaged in investigations or researched possible legal defenses, and overall failed to meaningfully represent their clients. Further, it found that city officials made deliberate choices that directly led to the deprivation of rights and failed to monitor or evaluate the system, turning a blind eye to its obvious problems.

The court concluded that the defense services for indigent clients amounted to little more than a “meet and plead” system. As Judge Lasnik wrote, “The appointment of counsel was, for the most part, little more than a formality, a stepping stone on the way to a case closure or plea bargain having almost nothing to do with the individual indigent defendant.”

The ruling came in the year of the 50th anniversary of the landmark Gideon case in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that defendants who face the possibility of a jail sentence and cannot pay for an attorney have a constitutional right to a government-appointed one.  In his ruling in the Wilbur case, Judge Lasnik noted,

It has been fifty years since the United States Supreme Court first recognized that the accused has a right to the assistance of counsel for his defense in all criminal prosecutions and that the state courts must appoint counsel for indigent defendants who cannot afford to retain their own lawyer. The notes of freedom and liberty that emerged from Gideon’s trumpet a half a century ago cannot survive if that trumpet is muted and dented by harsh fiscal measures that reduce the promise to a hollow shell of a hallowed right.

The suit asserted that: 

  • The cities knew the public defense attorneys’ caseloads were very excessive for many years, and they still refused to monitor compliance with caseload limits. At the time of filing the suit, the cities knew that part-time public defenders were handling thousands of cases per year.  In 2012, the public defenders still opened far more public defense cases than are allowed under applicable Washington State Bar Association standards.
  • The public defense attorneys fail to reasonably investigate the charges filed against their clients. During an eight-month period in 2012, they utilized an investigator only four times. An expert who reviewed 50 randomly selected case files found no evidence of any investigatory work.  This continues a longstanding practice of rarely investigating cases. 
  • The public defense attorneys fail to spend sufficient time on their clients’ cases, effectively forcing defendants to accept plea deals.  According to their closed case reports, the attorneys are spending an average of less than two hours per case. In the past, the public defenders routinely spent less than 30 minutes on a case.  The current attorneys continue to fail to adequately meet with their clients, both when in custody and out of custody.  They overlook significant legal issues and do too few trials.
  • The cities fail to provide any meaningful oversight of the public defense system. Indeed, the cities maintain they have no obligation to monitor or supervise the system. They do nothing to determine whether their public defense system meets constitutional standards. 

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

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