Public Defenders

Utah's indigent defense system is underfunded and unconstitutional, ACLU suit alleges

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A new lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union alleges that the state of Utah so drastically underfunds its indigent-defense system that it’s failing to meet its constitutional obligations to the state’s poor.

The state ACLU and law firm Holland & Hart filed the proposed class action lawsuit Tuesday in Salt Lake County court, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. They represent six Utah defendants who are represented by public defenders. The plaintiffs allege that Utah’s current system provides so little funding or oversight of county indigent defense systems that it’s unconstitutional.

Utah delegates its indigent-defense responsibility to counties, and is one of two states that provide zero funding for county-level indigent defense. (The other is Pennsylvania, whose Supreme Court is currently considering a similar lawsuit.) In Salt Lake County and Utah County, which contain much of the state’s population, indigent defense is handled by a nonprofit public defender office. Other counties contract with local defense attorneys to provide the services, sometimes for a flat fee rather than a fee per case. In some areas, prosecutors are allowed to help choose contract attorneys—permitting them to choose their opponents.

The lawsuit says compensation for indigent defense in Utah is “almost without exception” inadequate. In addition, most defenders are not compensated for investigators, testing or expert witnesses their clients may need, or office expenses. Defenders outside Salt Lake and Utah Counties are permitted to take private clients, and indeed must do so to pay their overhead, the lawsuit says.

All of this encourages contract defenders to take more clients than they can reasonably represent, the lawsuit says. This is particularly dangerous because the state and its counties do not have any written standards or policies on conflicts of interest, caseloads, hiring or continuing legal education for contract defenders.

The result is cases like that of named plaintiff Colter Ricks, the lawsuit says. Ricks has been in Cache County Jail since May 28 on charges of failure to stop, possession of methamphetamine and possession of drug paraphernalia. He was arraigned by video conference, denied bail and had his prior bail revoked, all without an attorney present. He was appointed an attorney after that hearing, but had not met with that attorney before the lawsuit was filed on Tuesday.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a state law passed earlier this year that created and funded a statewide indigent-defense commission. That commission is in the process of being set up; commissioners were appointed this month. The plaintiffs’ attorneys said this is insufficient because it comes with no enforcement; counties that don’t meet their obligations can only lose funding.

The ACLU’s lawsuit joins an earlier lawsuit filed by private attorney Mike Studebaker over the same subject, Courthouse News reports. In Cox et al v. Utah, filed January in Utah federal court, two indigent defendants allege that the state’s lack of funding, oversight or resources for indigent defense violates their Sixth Amendment rights.

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