Few Lawyers and Little Justice in South Carolina’s Lower Courts, Study Finds

Poor defendants are routinely denied counsel or not informed of their Sixth Amendment rights, according to a new report.
(Photo: Karen Neoh/Flickr)
Apr 4, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

You’ve heard your favorite TV crime stoppers say it a thousand times: “You have the right to remain silent.... You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you at no cost to you.” It’s a familiar refrain that carries with it what seems like a simple guarantee. But in the real world, accessing a public defender isn’t always easy—and in some places, it doesn’t happen at all.

In South Carolina’s lower courts—called magistrate, municipal, or summary courts—low-income defendants are routinely denied access to attorneys or not informed of their Sixth Amendment rights, according to a new report published Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“When you go to a summary court in South Carolina, you find yourself in a judicial netherworld, where the police officer who made the arrest acts as the prosecutor, the judge may not have a law degree, and there are no lawyers in sight,” said Susan Dunn, legal director of the ACLU of South Carolina, in a statement.

As TakePart reported last August, operations in these local municipal courts, which handle low-level offenses ranging from traffic violations to criminal misdemeanor charges, such as theft and minor assault, vary widely from county to county. Some are staffed with public defenders, but many are not—and that’s where the problem lies.

TakePart observed numerous defendants waiving their right to an attorney without fully understanding the consequences and in other instances being denied counsel.

“By operating as if the Sixth Amendment doesn’t exist, these courts weigh the scales of justice so heavily against defendants that they often receive fines and jail time they don’t deserve,” said Dunn.

The report’s authors watched court proceedings in counties throughout South Carolina from late 2014 to July 2015. In that time, they observed judges without law degrees sending people who couldn’t pay fines to jail. In one instance, the authors observed an elderly black woman in North Charleston being charged with shoplifting meat and cake from her local Walmart. She requested a public defender, but the judge wouldn’t assign her one. She was handcuffed and sent to jail in tears.

Those who are able to access a public defender find that it isn’t, in fact, free. A $40 “application fee” must be paid to the state in order to be screened and receive a lawyer—a prohibitive cost for some defendants. Another judge was observed informing defendants that requesting a public defender was a waste of this application fee, as they must be “dirt poor” to qualify.

“I really thought I knew public defense, and then I got to this,” Colette Tvedt of the NACDL told TakePart last year. “The underbelly of what’s happening in the U.S. is very different—this is a crisis of indigent defense.”