Constitutional Law

Suit claims South Carolina municipal courts jail poor people without providing a lawyer

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A class action lawsuit filed Thursday alleges that municipal courts in South Carolina fail to provide lawyers to people who can’t afford them and fail to advise defendants of their right to a lawyer.

The federal lawsuit targets the cities of Beaufort and Bluffton but says most of South Carolina’s 212 municipalities appear to deprive poor defendants of their constitutional right to counsel, according to a press release and the New York Times.

The newspaper profiled Larry Marsh, a homeless man with a history of mental illness and drug addiction. He has been arrested in Sumter more than 270 times for trespassing. He was repeatedly sentenced to jail and never had a lawyer representing him.

Defendants like Marsh are often offered a choice between a $250 fine and 30 days in jail. Marsh can’t afford the fine.

According to the Times, Marsh “is at the mercy of the South Carolina municipal courts, an idiosyncratic system in which police officers serve as prosecutors, judges are not required to have college degrees, and public defenders are often absent.”

The Times visited the Sumter courtroom of Judge Kristi Curtis, who advised defendants they had a right to a jury trial if they waited four to six weeks. Those who couldn’t post bail would wait for the trial in jail, so most of the defendants opted for an on-the-spot bench trial. Most were found guilty.

Defendants were informed of the right to a lawyer, but not that one would be appointed for free if they couldn’t afford it. Only one defendant requested a lawyer—and he was told he would have to remain in jail until the lawyer was available. Marsh told the Times he routinely turned down a lawyer.

The suit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of South Carolina, and Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough.

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