The American Civil Liberties Union’s latest debtors’ prison lawsuit accuses two South Carolina cities of declining or ignoring requests to help fund public defender services for the poor.
Until 2009, the public defender for the City of Beaufort, South Carolina had represented indigent defendants in the county’s four municipal courts, where many have ended up in jail over minor crimes and traffic tickets, according to the ACLU.
But when then-public defender Gene Hood asked municipalities for money to cover indigent defense in their courts, government officials “declined or otherwise ignored” in 2009, the ACLU said in court papers filed last week.
The result has left indigent defendants facing jail time without access to a public defender or court appointed attorney, according to a federal lawsuit the ACLU has filed against Beaufort and nearby Bluffton.
Last month, South Carolina’s top judge called such practices unconstitutional in a memo sent to magistrate and municipal judges across South Carolina. The directive, reported on by DebtorsPrisons.com last week, called for immediate reforms.
Among the plaintiffs in the ACLU’s case against the two towns is Dae’ Quandrea Trevell Nelson, 19, who planned to be the first person in his family to attend college, according to the complaint.
The standout linebacker graduated from Bluffton High School in South Carolina in 2016, receiving a verbal offer for a two year college scholarship if he kept his grades up.
Instead, Nelson found himself in jail over a school fight, his first criminal offense, despite the fact the judge never told never told him he could have a lawyer appointed to represent him, according to the ACLU.
Another plaintiff, Nathan Lee Fox, spent 38 days in jail for five traffic related matters but was never provided an opportunity to have a public defender appointed to his case, according to the ACLU.
The organization also cited figures showing one out of six people in the Beaufort jail end up incarcerated on municipal charges only, and none of them have access to an attorney.
“Thousands of South Carolinians are shoved through the municipal court process without attorneys, their chances of a fair hearing slim to none,” Susan Dunn, Legal Director of the ACLU of South Carolina, said in a statement.