City of Beaufort settles suit brought by ACLU

5 mins read

Case involved right to counsel in municipal courts

By MIKE McCOMBS

The American Civil Liberties Union, the City of Beaufort and the Town of Bluffton announced a settlement last week in an Oct. 2017 lawsuit accusing the municipalities of depriving lawyers to poor people facing incarceration if convicted in municipal court.

The ACLU of South Carolina and Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough LLP were involved in the settlement, as well.

According to Beaufort City Manager Bill Prokop, the parties had been on the same page for close to a year, but it simply took this long to work out all of the details. Prokop said the city’s procedures won’t change from what it has been doing for the past year.

“Public defenders will be handled by the county’s public defender office in a contract with Beaufort, Bluffton and Port Royal,” Prokop said.

Hilton Head Island did away with its municipal court.

Prokop said the parties had to be sure the details of the settlement were within state law and satisfied the state court administration, as well as the public defenders.

The settlement comes at little cost for the city, Prokop said. The change in cost is “within a couple percentage points,” Prokop said.

The municipalities were responsible for $250,000 in ACLU court costs, but that will come from the state insurance reserve fund.

According to the ACLU, in addition to the settlement on public defenders, the municipalities will provide written notice and oral advisement of the right to counsel to every person charged with an offense that carries the possibility of a jail sentence. They will also refrain from conducting trials in absentia without counsel unless such defendants have willfully waived their rights. 

“Whether you are rich or poor, the right to a lawyer is a pillar of our criminal legal system,” director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project Ezekiel Edwards said in a release. “For far too long, municipal courts in South Carolina have run wealth-based systems by treating this constitutional protection as a luxury reserved only for people who could afford it. (Last week’s) settlement protects the guarantee of the right to a public defender for everyone facing criminal charges in municipal courts in Beaufort and Bluffton. Every city in South Carolina must ensure the same protections.”

Each of the lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed in Oct. 2017, was prosecuted, convicted, and jailed by municipal courts in the City of Beaufort or the Town of Bluffton without being appointed a public defender attorney or being advised of the right to counsel. 

“We applaud Beaufort and Bluffton for coming to the table and reaching a settlement that will address the constitutional failures in their municipal courts that we documented in our complaint,” ACLU of SC Legal Director Susan Dunn said in a release. “It is our hope that other cities across the state will take this opportunity to follow their lead and provide public defenders in their courts so that no one is subjected to unfair court proceedings simply because they are poor.” 

This settlement could have an impact across the state. According to the ACLU, in a majority of South Carolina’s more than 200 municipal courts, public defenders are unavailable. Several fail to provide any representation for poor defendants. 

“The law is clear — if a city in South Carolina chooses to have a municipal court, either it must provide zealous advocates to poor people prosecuted in those courts or shut down its court,” Stuart Andrews, a partner at the law firm Nelson Mullins, said in a release.

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