County rules tighten for indigent law services

April 28, 2008


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 “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.”

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Member Opinions:

By: Anonymous on 6/14/08

hello?!!?!?!??!?!? mcfly??? call the waaaambulance again. someone had enough money to BUY the marijuana! here's a thought…it's deep…i'm goin' out on a limb here… but…umm.. how 'bout if you…oh… let's say..DON'T BREAK THE LAW! knucklehead!

By: Anonymous on 5/1/08

I happen to know the Probation Department has been working on making the Public Defender Reimbursement program friendly to defendants, and certainly before this article came out. Their goal has never been to collect fees for services from the indigent in this program, rather to have those pay who have the ability to pay. Based upon the amount of money brought to the county by the program we do have individuals who are receiving public defender services who have the ability to pay.

By: Anonymous on 4/30/08

It is interesting to see this article. My father just recently passed away and he was indigent. The County refused our application 3x for indigent burial services because they didn't agree with an expense on my sister's bank statement. From what i have learned from a local mortuary, the County has started to deny many applications based on subjective reasons, including bad attitudes. Seems our County is running by their own rules and doing a disservice to our indigent population.

By: Anonymous on 4/30/08

Let the impoverished that need a lawyer work for kelly gearhart!

By: Anonymous on 4/29/08


Unfortunately, that is not an isolated incident. Just look at the case of the Duke University kids, recent release of a woman who was convicted murdering her Marine husband even thogh the DA had the evidence to the contrary. The DA in San Diego county still had the audocity to come on national TV claiming that the system worked the way it was supposed to. If thats the kind of justice is being dispensed, this country is in gerat trouble. The DA and government spends as much as they feel like to prosecute while the accused either pleads to something less charges or must face an uphill battle. I'd like to see the legislature stop such abuses and go after errand cops, DA and any others with unlimited power.

By: Anonymous on 4/29/08

I personally know of, and have witnessed, on more than one occasion, a person being arrested under completely bogus charges, by police officers who didn't like the person's "attitude" or looks.

In each case all charges were dropped, but not before the victims spent time in jail and had to go to court. Errant police officers know that's significant punishment for an "attitude"problem.

That those innocent victims of rogue cops should also have to pay the county for legal expenses would only compound the injustice that some run-amok officers enjoy dispensing.

This is not meant to disrespect the many fine law enforcement officers out there who are fair and reasonable, to whom I sincerely tip my hat.

By: Anonymous on 4/29/08

Karl Marx

You've chosen aname whose philosophy been discredited, but is alive and well. The mob mentality is very much present when you look at California's "three strike law" Now that we have more incarcerated peopel than ever likely number one in the world, people are complainig about the cost. So, sucked it up idiots!!! Vote more of your though laws and we have people locked up for traffic violation. Wake up!!!

Yes I am a Christian and Republican but with a little brain left to be used.

By: Anonymous on 4/29/08

The mob justice mentality shown in some of these comments is another demonstration of why the justice system has certain safeguards and counterbalances. May you folks be wrongly indicted and unable to afford a lawyer. (And I wonder how many of the hang-em-high crowd call themselves Christians.)

By: Anonymous on 4/29/08

Here is a great eaxample of a blog run by a local.

His new topic is "30 things libs believe in"…It's not to be missed!

Check it and I know he would help you if you needed it for your blog!

Thanks again for all your wonderful work!

By: Anonymous on 4/29/08

I wonder if the Probation Department would have had a sit down to "sort this out" if you hadn't done a story? I doubt it. Great Job. Keep telling it like it is.

By: Anonymous on 4/28/08

Hey Sam, That is nasty. How about just excecute e ones ondeath row. Why wait 20 years?

By: Anonymous on 4/28/08

Execute the homeless, that'll sort it out.

By: Anonymous on 4/28/08

There are enough laws to charge almost anyone with something. The government should decriminolize minor drugs and prostitution. As it is now, more people die of alcohol and prsescription drugs than illigal drugs. That action alone would free up 60% of jails and courts along with the expense of defending them (the defense those people get is a joke anyway). We could pay attention to real crimes and major drug dealers. Also, both drugs and prostitution culd be controlled and taxed. It would not only be a good health policy but an income for the state and local governments. So many people with the puralistic attitude beleive that if we make it illigal it will be stopped. It is all over and bad people making money off of it. Law abiding tax payers paying the price for another misguided moralistic attitude.

By: Anonymous on 4/28/08

remeber the poor houses?? Well if you are poor and break the law…off ya go!

Sorry we cant pay for everything! That's not in my constitution!

By: Anonymous on 4/28/08

Unfortunately we taxpayers pay for everything that the losers are responsible for. We pay to have them arrested. We pay to incarcerate them. We pay to prosecute them. We pay to defend them. Then we pay for them in prison or for being on parole. We pay their medical. After all that we are the victims that receive nothing.

Unfortunately the poor are very good targets for everyone. One must remember that District Attorneys are elected officials and usually retain their positions from a positive conviction rate. You really don't see a whole lot of "rich" people in jail or for the most part even going to court. The attorneys and judges , who are also elected, and are heavily financed by attorneys during elections will usually plea bargin their clients to a much lessor offense and away they go. On the contrary the poor are intimidated, threatened and conseguently will plea to higher crime to alleviate a more severe sentence. Consequerntly the District Attorney and the elected Judges have obtained their high conviction rates while the poor sit in jail and we pay for them.

Beleive me I'm not a bleeding heart. But I do hate to see the little guy getting screwed.

By: Anonymous on 4/28/08

I'm a self proclaimed idiot!

By: Anonymous on 4/28/08

If you paint yourself with broad brushstrokes of unenthusiastic ennui occasionally tainted with little glittery sparkles of guilty vice and pleasure you're probably falling terribly short of your true potential to wreak havoc upon the general fear-based blandness and mediocrity of the culture at large when you could be hurling luminous sticky fireballs of thought and individuality and spirit at the wall of the universe and the Public Defender's office to see what sticks.

No one thinks you're nearly as profoundly insignificant as you really should think you are. Gosh you wear your desperate rightousness and profound longing for psycho-spiritual contentment well. Dano, I'm on to your scheme…and could use a good attorney…

By: Anonymous on 4/28/08

I think that's called Marxism!

Hoboy. I think comments like that are called non-sequiturs.

Indigent defense is a very serious matter, lest the justice system become completely meaningless for poor defendants (as happens in Marxist-Leninist governments, and even countries like Japan). The stakes for a defendant can be huge, prosecutions are sometimes unjust, and even guilty people are entitled to representation if the system is to have even a veneer of fairness. Even when a public defender is provided, their services can be poor due to limited time, high caseloads, etc., so this turn of events just compounds longstanding problems. So, indigent defense is definitely not the first budget item to cut.

Two substantial things to come out of the OJ Simpson criminal case were: the fact that the rich get a different level of justice; and a large portion of the public believes the system is rigged against them.

What's the old joke? A conservative is a liberal who's been mugged. A liberal is a conservative who's been arrested.

By: Anonymous on 4/28/08

To "We're Broke!" Quoting you: "Be careful here! Very careful!" I think that's a threat to the messenger of a perfectly legitimate news story, and that's called facism.

By: Anonymous on 4/28/08

The State and county are broke! With no help in sight!

What do you suggest? Cut services to those that pay 100% of the taxes?

I think that's called Marxism!

be careful here! Very careful!