A new study of South Carolina’s lower courts finds that an overburdened judicial system often rushes through trials without allowing the state’s poorest residents to understand their rights to an attorney or sometimes even disregarding those individuals when they do.
The report “Summary Injustice” released last week by the ACLU’s South Carolina chapter and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) examined South Carolina’s summary courts and town or city municipal courts. Summary courts usually handle minor crimes that have up to a $500 fine or 30 days in jail. They also can set bonds or issue warrants for more serious crimes. These roughly 400 courts across South Carolina are led by county magistrates or municipal judges who are required to have a bachelor’s degree, but not necessarily a law degree.
“Accused individuals are walking into these courtrooms, pleading guilty to criminal charges, and leaving with permanent criminal records, without a single lawyer involved in the process,” the report states. “This is not the way the nation’s criminal justice system should operate.”
ACLU South Carolina Executive Director Shaundra Young Scott said the system is heavily stacked against who cannot afford their own attorney. “People are herded through quickly in a minute or minute-and-a-half and are not comprehending exactly what’s going on,” she told South Carolina Radio Network.
The report found accused individuals are not provided counsel during bond hearings, when the judge determines whether someone will be held in jail following arrest. Those who cannot afford to pay even a modest bond amount end up imprisoned in jail until their cases are adjudicated. As a result, many often serve the maximum possible sentence prior to being found guilty or not guilty.
Many times, the ACLU notes, its courtroom observers found many accused are not even informed of their right to have an attorney, much less one provided by the court. In the few courts where the accused were informed of their rights to a lawyer and a trial, that advisement was often conducted in a group or by video, with the judge hardly, if ever, questioning the individual defendant’s understanding of these rights and what it meant to waive them. In addition, many defendants are not given the ability to request a public defender until their trial date. If the defendant requests one, they’ll have to return for a second trial date in the future.
Scott said many individuals often plead guilty just to avoid the prospect of time in jail awaiting their trial. “They don’t necessarily have to plead guilty, but they’re wanting to have the situation over and done with — not realizing what it means for this to go on their record,” she said. “It could prevent them from things we take for granted, like a driver’s license or voting.”
One case mentioned in the report involved a North Charleston municipal judge who refused to grant a second continuance for a shoplifting suspect who had requested a public defender. When the judge realized the woman did not understand his questions, he entered her plea as “not guilty” and that she requested a “bench trial.” He then proceeded to call a witness in the case as the woman questioned what was going on. When the judge asked her again if she wanted a bench or jury trial, the report said she answered “I don’t care.” The witness was a Wal-Mart employee who testified seeing the suspect try to leave the store without paying for meat and a cake. The judge asked the defendant if she had anything to say or wanted to cross-witness. The woman did not. The judge then found her guilty and sentenced the sobbing woman to the maximum 30 days in jail.
The report states the entire trial and sentencing took less than three minutes. A NACDL observer later notified the Charleston County Public Defender’s office of what happened and an attorney there was able to get the woman’s sentence reduced to time served.
Another case involved a Beaufort County woman who had been charged with her first DUI offense. The magistrate in that case set a high bond because his court documents showed the woman owed unpaid fees to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, which the woman denied. She requested to be screened for a public defender, but no attorney was ever provided. Three weeks later, she was brought back into court and asked if she wanted to plead guilty for time served. But she refused, saying she had still not been given an attorney. She was later released after the maximum 30 days, losing her job in the process. She later learned the case had been tried while she was still in jail and she was declared “willfully” failing to appear in court. She also learned she was the victim of a bookkeeping error — she did not owe the DMV any money.
Scott said she hopes the report will help policymakers realize the need for more public defenders in the state’s lower courts who can help deal with the large caseload defenders currently face. She noted Richland County has 12 magistrate courts, 4 municipal courts, and a centralized bond court that operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but only two lawyers in the Public Defender’s Office to staff those courts. An official with the Commission on Indigent Defense said it would likely require at least $10 million to adequately cover those offices statewide.
The report was only based on observations of ACLU and NACDL observers. It recommends a larger-scale future study to see how widespread potential constitutional violations exist in South Carolina.