BATON ROUGE – The cash-starved Orleans Parish public defenders' office is being sued after allegedly placing poor people connected to crimes on a "waiting list" and leaving them without access to lawyers.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the office and the Louisiana Public Defender Board over the public defenders' office refusal to take on certain cases, arguing that it relies on a "dysfunctional funding scheme" to pay for the public defender program.
The suit, filed on Jan. 14, argues that by refusing to take on indigent cases poor people accused of crimes are put on waiting lists and left in jail.
“Being incarcerated means they aren’t working [and] they are not earning money,” Marjorie Esman, director of ACLU Louisiana, recently told the Louisiana Record. “They are separated from their families who are now denied not only the family member, but also the income that person is losing.”
The suit alleges that due to a lack of lawyers the public defenders' office is violating the 6th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which promises defendants the right to be represented; and the 14th Amendment, which asserts that defendants have a right to due process and equal protection under the law.
“Defendants are sitting in jail without lawyers, despite their Constitutional right to counsel,” Esman said. “Until they get lawyers, their cases cannot proceed. This affects their right to a speedy trial.”
The suit was filed on behalf of Darwin Yarls Jr., 51, who sped through a busy New Orleans intersection and T-boned a car in October that instantly killed his long-time girlfriend, Patty Spears, 50; and two other indigent defendants, Leroy Shaw Jr. and Douglas Brown, who were arrested in January. All have subsequently been placed on a waiting list for representation due to their inability to afford representation.
Unemployed when he was arrested, Yarls has remained in jail since October, unable to afford his $75,000 bail bond. He also has nobody to challenge bail conditions or negotiate prosecution for him.
“With every hour without an attorney, you may forever lose invaluable opportunities to build your defense,” Brandon Buskey, of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, told the Louisiana Record. “The damage to your case can be irreparable.”
At the end of 2015, the Orleans Parish public defenders' office announced that it would start refusing case assignments in mid-January as a result of "chronic underfunding," claiming that its staff had become too under-resourced and overburdened to provide constitutional and ethical representations to many defendants. This was promoted by a $600,000 budget deficit, a hiring freeze and the attrition of 12 attorneys since July 2015.
“Our workload has now reached unmanageable levels, resulting in a constitutional crisis,” Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton said in a statement. “I can no longer ethically assign cases to attorneys with excessive caseloads, or those that lack the requisite experience and training to represent the most serious offenses.”
According to the lawsuit, the state of Louisiana relies on fines and fees that have been collected from the public for traffic tickets and other convictions. Despite the fact that the public defenders' office represents approximately 85 percent of defendants in Orleans Parish, its budget remains half the size of the district attorney’s.
“The system must have a reliable source of funding that is not dependent on fines levied against the public,” Esman said. “Prosecutors have reliable budgets; and for the justice system to be fair, both sides must have predictable, reliable resources that allow them to do their jobs in a fully professional manner.”
The defendants have until March 15 to respond.