Municipal court might add public defender

  • Thursday, November 29, 2012

Summerville is considering hiring a public defender to work in its municipal court, but the question of funding must first be sorted out.
Mark Leiendecker, the First Circuit public defender, made a presentation to Town Council several months ago after implementing a successful program at the county’s magistrate court.
Town Councilman Walter Bailey said Wednesday the idea would likely be discussed at the public safety committee’s December meeting.
Bailey, a former First Circuit solicitor, agreed the town should probably provide an attorney for defendants who can’t afford a lawyer.
But he’s not sure about the town taking up the whole cost.
The town isn’t obligated to run a municipal court, he said. It could let the county magistrate court handle all minor offenses, but instead the town bears the cost of its own court while Summerville taxpayers provide a significant percentage of the county taxes that fund the county magistrate court, he said.
Some arrangement should be worked out on the financial side, he said.
The town already pays for a prosecutor for its court. Benjy Lafond is paid $2,000 per month as an independent contractor to appear in court for jury trials and assist the police departments with other matters.
The county has only recently started funding assistant solicitors and public defenders at the magistrate court.
It provided $100,000 for the current fiscal year for what started as a six-month pilot program last year.
Leiendecker said the program has been “incredibly successful.”
Having an attorney for each side has helped move cases along and clean up the backlog that existed, he said.
Providing a public defender also complies with a well-established U.S. Supreme Court decision, he said.
Even at the municipal or magistrate court level, people need defense attorneys because those minor cases can be “stacked” later on, leading to the possibility of more jail time because the person is now facing a second or third offense.
“You can be lulled into a false sense of success in thinking, ‘If I just pleaded this I don’t have to spend any time in jail and I just pay a fine,’” he said.
Defendants might think they didn’t break the law, but figure it’s easier to plead to something so minor, he said.
The problem comes when they find themselves in trouble again, he said, and suddenly facing much more severe penalties.
As an example, Defendant “A” might decide to plead to a first offense for having a marijuana cigarette, he said.
If, later on, Defendant “A” is in a car that’s stopped and another person in the car hides cocaine under the seat, the previous marijuana guilty plea means Defendant “A” could now face a second offense charge for the cocaine instead of first offense, Leiendecker said.
That comes with a significant increase in the possible amount of prison time.
Having a public defender available isn’t about letting people get away with crimes, Leiendecker said.
The foundation of our nation’s legal system is that people are considered innocent until convicted, he said.
By adding a defense attorney, the resolution is still often a guilty plea, he said. But sometimes the attorney can help the defendant resolve the case and the underlying issue – having a suspended driver’s license, for example.
An attorney can also help a defendant who was arrested as part of a group, he said.
“On occasion the police paint with a broad brush and make mistakes, he said.
They might arrest everyone in a car, for example, and figure the courts will sort out the mess.
Leiendecker said a municipal public defender isn’t common in the First Circuit.
It is in neighboring jurisdictions, however, with Goose Creek, Mt. Pleasant, Charleston and North Charleston all either providing public defenders or a system to access attorneys, he said.

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