Archives : 2005 : November
The Right to an Attorney: When it does not apply and how indigent defendants are coerced into paying for court-appointed counsel
By Michael Grahn, Esq. and Helen O. Kim
The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that, In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense. The right to have assistance of counsel requires individual states to appoint attorneys for indigent defendants in criminal cases. Gideon v. Wainwright, 83 S. Ct. 792 (1963). However, there are two important limitations on this right to an appointed attorney. First, the right to an attorney does not attach until the formal initiation of criminal proceedings by complaint, indictment or information. Kirby v. Illinois, 406 U.S. 682, 689 (1972). Second, all states and the federal government have some type of cost recoupment system that allows states and the federal government to recover from indigent defendants some of the costs of providing counsel to them.
No Right to an Appointed Attorney for a Person under Investigation but not Charged
In a long line of cases dating back to 1932, the Supreme Court has held that the Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel does not attach until a person is formally charged with a crime. Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932); Kirby v. Illinois, 406 U.S. 682, 689 (1972). This holding means that when a person is under investigation by law enforcement she does not have a right to court appointed counsel to assist her in responding to and protecting herself from the authorities. Only where the government had crossed the constitutionally significant divide from fact-finder to adversary can an uncharged person have the right to an appointed attorney. Hall v. Lane, 804 F.2d 79, 82 (7th Cir. 1986). Essentially, an uncharged person is entitled to appointed counsel only when the government intentionally delays filing charges in order to avoid the protections of the Sixth Amendment. Bruce v. Duckworth, 659 F.2d 776, 783 (7th Cir. 1981).
Government Recovery of Costs of Appointed Counsel
The Supreme Court has unambiguously held that the Sixth Amendment requires appointment of counsel for indigent defendants. Gideon v. Wainwright, 83 S. Ct. 792 (1963). In recent years, the federal government and all the states have established systems to seek reimbursement from indigent defendants for some of the costs of appointed counsel. The constitutionality of recoupment statutes has been challenged on grounds that such statutes deny the indigent defendant her Sixth Amendment right to assistance of counsel and her Fourteenth Amendment right to Equal Protection of the laws and Due Process. While some of the specific state systems have been deemed unconstitutional in application, the concept that governments can seek to recoup some of the costs of appointing counsel for indigent defendants has been consistently upheld.
Sixth Amendment Challenges
In some cases where courts have considered the validity of state recoupment statutes under the Sixth Amendments right to assistance of counsel, courts have held that such statues did not deny indigent defendants right to assistance of counsel. On the other hand, some courts have held that such statutes were unconstitutional because they discouraged indigent defendants from exercising their right to have assistance of counsel. In State of Alaska v. Albert, 899 P.2d 103 (Alas. 1995), the Supreme Court of Alaska held that Alaskas recoupment statute did not violate indigent defendants right to counsel because there was no evidence that the recoupment system caused indigent defendants to refuse counsel more frequently than non-indigent defendants. Likewise, In Fuller v. Oregon, 94 S. Ct. 2116 (1974), the United States Supreme Court held that because Oregons recoupment statute only imposed obligation to repay costs of counsel on those with foreseeable ability to meet that obligation, it did not deter indigent defendants from exercising their right to counsel. In certain jurisdictions, recoupment statutes do not require a court to determine an indigent defendants ability to pay prior to the recoupment judgment. Furthermore, some jurisdictions do not require determination of the indigent defendants ability to pay prior to recoupment judgment even if jail is a possible consequence for nonpayment.
While some state recoupment statutes have been deemed constitutional because the statute did not violate the Sixth Amendment by discouraging indigent defendants to exercise their right to counsel, other state recoupment statues have been held unconstitutional because the statute chilled an indigent defendants exercise of the right to counsel. In Fitch v. Belshaw, 581 F. Supp. 273 (1984), Oregons recoupment statute authorized courts to assess the cost of court-appointed counsel if the court determined that the indigent defendant was able to repay attorneys costs. However, all defendants who requested appointment of counsel were required to sign an affidavit promising to repay the costs of appointed counsel, discouraging defendants to exercise their Sixth Amendment right. The court held that Oregons recoupment statute unconstitutionally chilled indigent defendants exercise of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel because it required all indigent defendants to promise to repay their attorney costs whether or not they had the means to repay.
Due Process and Equal Protection Challenges
Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that, No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. In cases where courts have considered the validity of state recoupment statutes under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, courts have held that such statues did not deprive indigent defendants of liberty or property interests within the meaning of the Due Process Clause. In Wicks v. Charlottesville, 208 S.E.2d 752 (Va. 1974), Virginias recoupment statute permitted automatic taxation of a convicted defendant for repayment of attorneys fees. The Supreme Court of Virginia held that while the United States Constitution assures every accused a right to court-appointed counsel, no court has held that every constitutional right or privilege must be available to all persons without any cost or obligation on their part. Hence, the Court found Virginias recoupment statute valid under the Due Process Clause. On the other hand, in Fitch, supra, indigent defendants claimed that Oregons recoupment statute deprived them of substantial liberty and property interests without notice or hearing in violation of the Due Process Clause. Under the Oregon recoupment statute, indigent defendants who failed to repay the cost of counsel were subject to civil judgments, suspension of a drivers license, arrest and imprisonment. The court held that such property and liberty interests were substantial, especially when the statute did not require a notice or hearing, and thus the Oregon recoupment statute deprived indigent defendants of liberty and property without due process.
In Alaska, supra, indigent defendants argued that state recoupment statutes violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Under Alaskas recoupment statute, indigent defendants had far less opportunity to challenge the attorneys fees assessed by the state recoupment statute than did more affluent defendants who wanted to challenge the fees charged by their private attorneys. However, the court held that the recoupment statute served a legitimate state purpose, to obtain payment for the cost of appointed counsel. Hence, the court held that Alaskas state recoupment statute did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because the procedure granted to indigent defendants, even if different from procedure granted to more affluent defendants, achieved a legitimate state purpose with administrative efficacy while protecting the rights of criminal defendants. On the other hand, the Supreme Court in James v. Strange, 92 S. Ct. 2027 (1972), held that Kansas recoupment statue was unconstitutional because it did not allow indigent defendants all of the exemptions provided to other judgment debtors. The Court stated that Kansass recoupment statute treated indigent defendants discriminatorily from other judgment debtors and thus the statute violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The United States Constitution grants every criminal defendant a right to counsel. Accordingly, federal and state courts must provide indigent criminal defendants with court-appointed lawyers if they are unable to hire private counsel. However, all state and federal governments now have recoupment systems where able indigent criminal defendants are required to repay attorneys costs at the end of trial. If you are confronted with the option of requesting court-appointed counsel, it is important to consider the recoupment statues of that jurisdiction or consult an attorney to discuss the matter further. Additionally, if you are under criminal investigation but not charged with a crime, you should consult an attorney to determine whether you qualify for an appointed attorney and what can be done to avoid criminal charges.
By Michael D. Grahn, Attorney at Law and Natalie Banach
The screeching of tires and smashing of car parts can signify the beginning of a horrifying experience in someones life. Getting into a car accident can produce a slew of emotional and physical problems and whats more, when a death occurs, criminal allegations can enter into the mix.
Under certain circumstances, when death occurs, either to a passenger, a nearby pedestrian or a person in the car that was struck, a charge of vehicular manslaughter can be brought against the driver of the offending vehicle. (Cal. Penal Code 192.) Accordingly, it is important to understand how a tragic accident can also become a criminal charge.
In many cases, an accident causing death is the result of negligence by the driver. When this negligence is coupled with the commission of a crime not constituting a felony, such as violation of speed limits or driving under the influence, vehicular manslaughter may be charged against the driver. (Cal. Penal Code 192(c).)
What Is Vehicular Manslaughter?
Vehicular manslaughter entails the unintentional, yet unlawful, killing of another human being as the result of a car accident. The crime requires proof that the death resulted from a driver operating an automobile with gross negligence or simple negligence and in violation of some law not amounting to a felony.
An important aspect of vehicular manslaughter entails the drivers violation of a law. If a person is driving negligently and in violation of any traffic law, he can be charged with vehicular manslaughter if the death of a human being occurs. This means that whether someone is driving a few miles over the speed limit or driving under the influence, a criminal charge can be brought against him or her if negligent driving causes the death of a human being.
Gross Negligence Often Tested in Car Accident Deaths
One of the standards that will often be tested in cases of death via a car accident is gross negligence. Gross negligence is defined as exercising so slight a degree of care so as to raise a presumption of conscience indifference. (See, People v. Watson (1981) Cal.3d 290, 296.) For example, assume Tom is taking medication recommending that he not drive or operate any vehicles for a three-hour period. Tom waits two-and-a-half hours, decides he is more than capable of driving, and on the way to the store hits and kills a pedestrian he did not see (because the medication had impaired his sight). In this instance, Tom can be charged with vehicular manslaughter and gross negligence because he was told not to drive and knowingly accepted the risks when he got into is car to go to the store. Gross negligence is usually more than simple disregard, but just shy of intentional evil.
For example, consider a situation where John is driving his automobile in his residential neighborhood at 50 miles per hour (well over the speed limit). John sees a number of people walking on the sidewalk, but fails to see one of his neighbors, Jane, steps off the sidewalk and into the street. Johns car strikes and kills Jane. In this instance, John could be charged with vehicular manslaughter because he (a) killed a human being, (b) violated a law not constituting a felony, the speed limit and (c) clearly exhibited gross negligence by driving so fast in a residential neighborhood.
Vehicular Manslaughter: Misdemeanor or Felony
Vehicular manslaughter can be charged either as a misdemeanor or as a felony, depending on the severity of the situation and whether the driver was merely negligent or grossly negligent in operating the vehicle. (Cal. Penal Code 193(c).) A misdemeanor could result in the maximum punishment of a year in county jail and a fine, while a felony conviction could result in a state prison term. (Id.) Other consequences of vehicular manslaughter can include probation or parole, and the loss of driving privileges.
In contrast to vehicular manslaughter, an instance of a purely tragic accident, with no criminal culpability, would have to involve a completely safe and vigilant driver. For example, Susan is driving within the speed limit on a residential street and is thoroughly aware of her surroundings. Out of nowhere her neighbor runs into the street thinking there were no cars. Susan strikes and kills her neighbor. This case could be considered a tragic accident, since Susan was driving safely and observantly, adhering to all the laws and could not have predicted that her neighbor would run into the street.
Thus, anyone involved in an auto accident where injury or death occurs would be well-advised to seek legal advice in order to determine whether he faces the possibility of criminal prosecution.
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