Criminal Justice

ACLU suit claims Idaho's public defender system violates Sixth Amendment

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The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a suit contending that Idaho’s system of public defense violates defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to adequate legal representation.

The suit (PDF), filed in Idaho federal court, contends Idaho has a “patchwork” public defense system, and a majority of the state’s counties fail to satisfy constitutional or statutory mandates. Reuters, Boise Weekly, the Idaho Statesman and the Spokesman Review have stories. A press release is here.

In most Idaho counties, most indigent defendants don’t have counsel at initial appearances, when critical decisions are often made on bail, waivers of rights, entries of pleas and sentencing, the suit says.

After lawyers are assigned, many defendants lack adequate access to their lawyers, the suit says. Caseloads are so high in counties across the state that it is “difficult, if not impossible, for attorneys to provide their clients with the zealous representation to which they are entitled,” the suit says.

In addition, 19 Idaho counties use fixed-fee contracts with public defenders despite a 2014 law that bans them, the suit says. The contracts pay a set amount, no matter how many defendants are represented and how complicated the cases are. The incentive in such counties is to spend as little money and time on each client as possible, the suit says.

The suit seeks declaratory and injunction relief. It also seeks class-action status, identifying common questions that include: whether the state is constitutionally required to provide effective lawyers for indigent defendants at the initial appearance, whether the representation provided is constitutionally deficient, and whether the state is abdicating its responsibility to fund and oversee county indigent defense services.

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