Criminal Justice

Settlement provides for right to counsel in 2 municipal courts; ACLU hopes other cities take note

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A federal judge in Charleston, South Carolina, has approved a $250,000 settlement that also ensures the right to a lawyer for some municipal court defendants.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel approved the settlement on Oct. 7. It requires the city of Beaufort and the town of Bluffton to inform municipal court defendants facing possible jail time of their right to a lawyer and to provide them with free representation when they can’t afford it.

The Greenville News and the Charlotte Observer have coverage.

The towns will contract with the public defender’s office in the 14th Judicial Circuit to represent indigent defendants in their municipal courts.

Beaufort and Bluffton were defendants in the litigation, but the problem is not confined to those towns, according to a press release by the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina. Several towns fail to provide any representation for poor defendants in municipal courts, and a majority do not provide public defenders for those defendants.

Susan Dunn, legal director of the ACLU of South Carolina, says in the press release that she hopes other cities will follow the lead of Beaufort and Bluffton “so that no one is subjected to unfair court proceedings simply because they are poor.”

The ACLU of South Carolina had represented the plaintiffs in the suit along with the national ACLU and Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough. The three lead plaintiffs were defendants who were convicted and jailed in Beaufort and Bluffton without being appointed a public defender or being advised of their right to counsel.

Their lawsuit had alleged violations of the right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment and the right to due process and equal protection of the law under the 14th Amendment. Beaufort and Bluffton did not admit liability.

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