County rules tighten for indigent law services
April 28, 2008
By KAREN VELIE
County administrators have pulled the plug on easy, free legal counsel for the indigent.
In a move resulting in considerable confusion and contention, San Luis Obispo County’s Probation Department recently began billing indigent individuals who have claimed the right to be represented by an attorney after being charged with a crime.
A county official called the collection effort “a work in progress.”
County officials “are supposed to provide free defense to the indigent,” said Bill Hassler, attorney of the day at the Office of the State Public Defender. “They can set the bar wherever they want, but it seems pointless to seek reimbursement from the indigent.”
“We represent those who can’t afford counsel,” said one Public Defender employee. “The word on the street is having a chilling effect on the system. People know that if they ask for a public defender, they will have to pay.”
Though county officials claim indigent legal representation is provided at no cost, numerous bills demanding payment have been sent to impoverished persons.
Following an arrest for marijuana possession, James Dugger filled out a financial declaration and requested a public defender. Unemployed at the time, Dugger claimed he had no assets, not even a car.
“I was told there would be no charge,” Dugger said. “Then I started getting bills from the Probation Department’s Revenue Recovery Unit.”
Public defenders are appointed by the court when the accused do not have resources to hire a private attorney. This safeguard constitutional rights of the poor; expenses are paid from the county general fund.
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Sixth Amendment mandates the government to provide indigent persons with competent legal representation. Each government entity can establish its own requirements for making an “impoverished” determination.
Approximately a year ago, SLO County administrators asked the Probation Department’s Revenue Recovery Unit to help protect county funds from possible misuse. Applicants for legal aid are required to fill out a financial declaration form, and are asked to provide tax returns and bank statements, according to county administrators.
“Is it appropriate for the taxpayer that we just take the word of an individual that they have no assets?” asked County Administrator David Edge. He defended the new system: “Should (just filling out) a form be okay? Yes, you have a constitutional right to an attorney. We are looking for those people who can afford to pay.”
No county policy has yet been established to deal with indigents not having access to the required documentation.
“They just asked me to fill out the financial declaration. That is all,” Dugger said. “They did not ask for any documentation. I could have given them a tax return and a bank statement showing a zero balance. It’s unfair and I am not going to pay.”
Officials from the Probation Department, Public Defenders Office, and representatives of the court have agreed to get together for a review of the new collection procedure and its results.
“The Public Defender Reimbursement Program is a work in progress,” said Jim Salio, assistant chief probation officer in an e-mail to UncoveredSLO.com. “We have no intention of wanting to collect from indigent defendants, who truly need and deserve public defender representation. We are setting up a meeting with the Public Defender’s Office to work on improving the process.”