Basic constitutional rights still denied in misdemeanor courts
If there’s a chance you could wind up in jail, you have the right to an attorney whether or not you can afford one. The U.S. Supreme Court has reaffirmedand clarified this right more than once, in doing so making clear that it applies to both misdemeanor and felony offenses. Yet in Nashville, Tennessee, defendants in misdemeanor courts aren’t being informed of this basic right, and in some cases are outright denied a lawyer, according to a report from the American Bar Association.
A review of court records showed that between 2015 and 2016, roughly 80 percent of defendants in Davidson County weren’t represented by a lawyer when their charges were resolved, according to the report. When volunteer lawyers observed misdemeanor court proceedings in September 2016, they watched as prosecutors negotiated plea deals with defendants before they were informed of or had surrendered their right to an attorney.
The lawyers also discovered that judges and prosecutors repeatedly failed to ask defendants about their financial situations, assigning unmanageable fees and not informing defendants of the possibility to have those fees reduced.
This unconstitutional denial of counsel in Nashville’s misdemeanor courts is far from isolated. Across the country, indigent defendants facing low-level misdemeanor charges are routinely denied or not informed of their right to counsel. In May 2015, the problem was acknowledged at a bipartisan U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the right to counsel for indigent defendants.
“The Supreme Court’s Sixth Amendment decisions regarding misdemeanor defendants are violated thousands of times every day,” testified Sen. Chuck Grassley. “No Supreme Court decisions in our history have been violated so widely, so frequently, and for so long.”
Scenes described by the ABA report illustrate a daily reality playing itself out in overburdened state and local justice systems. Defendants are shuffled through courtrooms like parts on an assembly line, with efficiency taking precedence over justice. Prosecutors were observed discussing plea deals with groups of as many as five defendants at a time, rushing them through an opaque process without explaining the consequences of opting for a guilty plea.
Public defenders were not present in the courtrooms observed by the volunteer lawyers, and judges didn’t explain what was at stake for defendants.
“I think it’s a situation where a judge is more concerned with the number of cases in his courtroom than making sure that the prosecutor is doing their job and the defendant’s rights are protected,” Joseph Ozment, president of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers told ProPublica.
The ABA report on Nashville is the first of a “larger, national project to review practices in misdemeanor courts in other states throughout the country.” It’s far from being the first formal documentation of this pervasive problem, which is acknowledged in the report’s introduction. But in spite of ample evidence of the problem, Sixth Amendment violations in low-level courts persist.