South Carolina’s top judge says defendants who neither waive their right to an attorney nor have one are “continually” being imprisoned — “a clear violation of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.”
South Carolina Chief Judge Donald W. Beatty disclosed the situation in a letter to the state magistrates and municipal judges on September 15.
The letter, which you can read here (Beattymemo), doesn’t appear to be on the state judiciary’s website, but DebtorsPrisons.com obtained a copy after it was filed as an exhibit in a pending federal lawsuit.
Judge Beatty did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the memo in which he wrote, “It has continually come to my attention that defendants, who are neither represented by counsel nor have waived counsel, are being sentenced to imprisonment.”
The memo also states that without a waiver of counsel or the appointment of an attorney for indigent defendants, judges “shall not impose a sentence of jail time…”
“I am mindful of the constraints that you face in your courts, but these principles of due process to all defendants who come before you cannot be abridged,” the judge wrote.
The blunt directive comes months after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit in Lexington County, South Carolina, accusing court officials, the sheriff and public defender of operating a modern-day debtors’ prison.
The ACLU’s complaint says hundreds of people in Lexington go to jail because they cannot afford fines and fees for minor crimes and traffic cases.
“Lexington County is home to a modern-day debtors’ prison, with some of the longest jail terms we’ve seen across the country,” Nusrat Choudhury, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, said in announcing the complaint in June.
Last week, DebtorsPrisons.com reported on a county video recording of a public meeting in which one of the defendants in the ACLU case — public defender Robert Madsen — had lobbied for more attorney positions in his office years ago. At the time, Madsen made clear to elected officials that his office was not representing indigent defendants in magistrate cases who faced jail time.
Now, attorneys for Lexington officials have filed a motion, citing Judge Beatty’s recently circulated memo, in an attempt to get the ACLU case tossed. The motion argues Judge Beatty’s directive renders the ACLU’s requests for reforms moot.