Class Action Lawsuit Filed in SC for Right to Counsel

The right to an attorney is perhaps one of the most well-known little tidbits about the American legal system, hammered home every hour of every day on televisions around the world: A fictional cop slaps handcuffs on a rumpled suspect and announces: ” … You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you …” It’s on TV, so it must be true … right?

That depends on where you are. In South Carolina’s magistrate and municipal courts, the constitutional right to an attorney is often ignored when it comes to indigent defendants.

ACLU, New York Times take notice

The ACLU has noted this constitutional failure, and the organization’s Criminal Law Reform Project has filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the city of Beaufort and the town of Bluffton in hopes of forcing the state to obey the law.

Unrepresented Defendants Found Guilty in Record Time…

The New York Times reported the lawsuit and highlighted the problem in an article published last week. Nothing in the Times article would surprise anyone who spends time in these courtrooms. But for anyone unfamiliar with what actually goes on, the descriptions of a day in a Sumter municipal courtroom – where police officers act as witnesses and prosecutors – do not jibe with the stories we tell ourselves about our fair and just legal system.

In the courtroom, several defendants, clearly unnerved by the prospect of arguing a case in front of a judge, turned and desperately appealed to family members or friends for advice.

Some of the same police officers who were acting as prosecutors chuckled, smirked and whispered as embarrassing details were discussed.

The officers’ accounts went generally unquestioned by the judge. The defendants did not challenge them with a single question. Judge Curtis, who afterward declined to comment, found nearly everyone guilty.

Although they may have been entitled to legal representation, not one defendant of the 85 tried in the courtroom that day had a lawyer.

Not Allowed to Present Their Evidence…

The Times piece also describes the experience of a 39-year-old woman who was given permission by a judge to return to court with medical evidence that could have affected the outcome of her case. When she did as she was told, the same judge refused to even look at the evidence.

“He pointed and said, ‘Off to jail,'” according to the Times.

Who is Responsible for Ensuring That SC’s Municipal Courts are Following the Law?

Court Administration tells the Times that the S.C. Supreme Court is responsible for oversight of SC’s municipal courts, but the Clerk of Court for the Supreme Court tell the Times that Court Administration is responsible…

It is not clear what entity has the ultimate authority for the state’s municipal courts. Tonnya K. Kohn, administrator for the state Office of Court Administration, said that her office played no role in oversight of municipal courts and that the State Supreme Court was responsible.

But the Supreme Court’s clerk, Daniel E. Shearouse, said that the Office of Court Administration was responsible.

South Carolina Will not Change Without Outside Pressure

These kinds of scenes play out daily in courtrooms across the state when judges defy the fundamental right to legal representation that is enshrined in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution and affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

It happened when former Chief Justice Toal explicitly directed magistrates and municipal court judges to not appoint attorneys for indigent defendants, and it continues despite current Chief Justice Donald Beatty’s memo instructing magistrate and municipal court judges to appoint counsel for defendants who are facing jail time.

As long as the state’s highest legal authorities will not or cannot make sure that judges respect all defendants’ constitutional rights, lawsuits by civil liberties organizations and articles in far-away newspapers may be our best hope for effecting change.

When defendants have legal representation, “chuckling, smirking police officers acting as prosecutors” do not go unquestioned. Judges do not find the vast majority of defendants guilty in a matter of minutes. Evidence is not dismissed out of hand.

Defense attorneys play an integral role in the justice system. When the defense attorneys are removed, so is the justice, and all that’s left is a system that ensures that the poorest people go to jail again and again.

Criminal Defense in Myrtle Beach, Columbia, and Lexington SC

The Thompson Defense Firm only accepts criminal defense cases. Although we care deeply about the state of indigent defense in South Carolina, we are a private criminal defense firm.

If you are charged with a crime in the Myrtle Beach, Columbia, or Lexington areas, call us now at 843-444-6122 or fill out our online contact form to set up a free initial consultation to find out how we can help.

One Response to “Class Action Lawsuit Filed in SC for Right to Counsel

  • Clyde Pennington
    2 years ago

    This is a sad but true reality throughout South Carolina. I have seen so many poor and uneducated defendants who could with the aid of counsel, prevail in magistrates and municipal courts move through the process with great alacrity toward the “natural” guilty verdict. Why bog down the system with meaningless details like evidence when things are working so efficiently.

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