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Underfunded public defender system violates Sixth Amendment right to counsel

How many misdemeanor cases is too many for one public defender to take in one year?  Is it okay to advise a client to take a fantastic plea bargain without having a confidential conversation with him first?  What about skipping the investigation of  a client’s story?  In Wilbur v.  City of Mount Vernon, Case No. C11-1100RSL (12/4/13) the Western District of Washington slammed the “meet and plead” public defense systems in place in the cities of Mount Vernon and Burlington.  It placed the blame for shabby representation of indigent defendants squarely on the cities’ shoulders.

Mere appointment of counsel to represent an indigent defendant is not enough to satisfy the Sixth Amendment’s promise of the assistance of counsel. While the outright failure to appoint counsel will invalidate a resulting criminal conviction, less extreme circumstances will also give rise to a presumption that the outcome was not reliable. For example, if counsel entirely fails to subject the prosecution’s case to meaningful adversarial testing, if there is no opportunity for appointed counsel to confer with the accused to prepare a defense, or circumstances exist that make it highly unlikely that any lawyer, no matter how competent, would be able to provide effective assistance, the appointment of counsel may be little more than a sham and an adverse effect on the reliability of the trial process will be presumed. Cronic, 466 U.S. at 658-60; Avery v. Alabama, 308 U.S. 444, 446 (1940). Slip op. at 13.

The Court finds that the combination of contracting, funding, legislating, and monitoring decisions made by the policymaking authorities for the Cities directly caused the truncated case handling procedures that have deprived indigent criminal defendants in Mount Vernon and Burlington of private attorney/client consultation, reasonable investigation and advocacy, and the adversarial testing of the prosecutor’s case. The Cities are therefore liable under § 1983 for the systemic Sixth Amendment violation proved by plaintiffs. See Miranda v. Clark County, 319 F.3d 465 (9th Cir. 2003) (finding that county could be liable for constitutional deprivations arising from funding and case assignment policies); Clay v. Friedman, 541 F. Supp. 500, 502, 505-06 (N.D. Ill. 1982) (finding that administrative head of public defender’s office could be liable for non-representative decision-making and that county could be liable for promulgating policies and customs that led to the constitutional deprivation). Slip. op. at 16.

The real story might just be the court’s decision to tell the Cities specifically how to reform the public defense systems at issue.  Interesting stuff.  Click here for the district court’s decision.  See also Plaintiffs’ brief, City’s brief, Amicus brief.

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