By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - The American Civil Liberties Union sued Idaho on Wednesday for "enormous and repeated failures" in its public defense system, saying that indigent defendants have been forced to go before judges for bail hearings and even to enter guilty pleas and be sentenced without a lawyer present.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Idaho on behalf of four criminal defendants who qualified for public defenders based on their income, says Idaho is violating the constitutional guarantees of adequate legal representation and due process.
The lawsuit seeks class action status.
The suit, which also names Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter as a defendant, says elected officials intentionally failed to provide funding and oversight needed to upgrade a public defense program known to be seriously flawed.
The ACLU pointed to a probe undertaken five years ago at the state’s request in which the National Legal Aid and Defender Association found none of the public defender systems in sampled counties were constitutionally adequate.
"Five years later, the State has failed to fix this unconstitutional system," the complaint said. Idaho continued to transfer responsibility for furnishing legal counsel to poor defendants to cash-strapped counties without providing sufficient funds, the ACLU said.
Among the cases cited by the ACLU, plaintiff Naomi Morley was arrested last year after being severely injured in a single-car crash last year. She was charged with drunk driving and drugs charges and remained jailed for weeks on a bail she could not afford and which no public defender sought to reduce, the complaint said.
The ACLU said in the complaint that Morley has not been provided with adequate legal representation by her attorneys and was told that if she wanted to retain an expert to challenge the state's allegation that she had drugs in her system at the time of the accident that she would have to pay for that herself.
Morley has since been unable to “communicate effectively or consistently with her public defender” and faces trial later this month on charges that could see her imprisoned for 15 years if convicted, the ACLU said.
It is asking a federal judge to find Idaho is obligated to provide adequate legal counsel to indigent defendants, and to order Idaho to develop and implement a plan for public defense that meets constitutional muster as determined by the court.
Idaho officials could not immediately be reached for comment late Wednesday.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Leslie Adler)