ACLU sues California county over public defender system

Reuters News
Posted: Jul 15, 2015 5:34 PM

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The American Civil Liberties Union has sued a California county over what the group said on Wednesday was a failing public defense system that leaves thousands of the poorest without proper legal representation.

The ACLU of Northern California filed the suit against Fresno County on Tuesday, saying its public defender's office has been in a "state of crisis" for at least six years due to budget cuts.

The suit argues that public defenders there carry unmanageable case loads due to falling staffing levels, that defendants are passed from attorney to attorney, and that the public defenders receive insufficient training.

Daniel Cederborg, Fresno County counsel, told Reuters by phone that he could not comment immediately on the lawsuit because he had just received it.

But he said the county has been working with the ACLU for more than a year, and that the group had not previously provided a case of someone whose rights were violated, despite many requests.

ACLU staff attorney Novella Coleman responded by saying she did not know of any defendant who was willing to waive attorney-client privilege and give the county information that could jeopardize their case.

A representative of the county public defender's office could not immediately be reached for comment.

The suit centers on Peter Yepez, who was charged with burglary and being in possession of stolen property in October 2013.

The complaint said that by the time of his sentencing in January 2015, he had been represented by nine different public defenders, experienced staggering delays and received inadequate legal counsel.

"In Fresno County, persons accused of a crime who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer are effectively tried within a system where the prosecutors determine the outcome with little or no input or challenge from the defense," the suit said.

The suit also listed the state as a defendant, alleging that it is failing to protect residents' constitutional rights to effective counsel and due process.

Gareth Lacy, spokesman for Governor Jerry Brown, said the office had not seen the complaint and declined to comment.

(Reporting by Curtis Skinner; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Eric Beech)