Thousands of arrest warrants reviewed, following memo from S.C. Supreme Court judge

Thousands of people in York County, who face the possibility of jail due to low-level court convictions, have what appears to be a get out of jail card.

The reason? Many never appeared before a judge, but were convicted in absence. That means those charged were never told by a judge of their Constitutional right to a lawyer for any crime that carries a fine or jail time.

Several York County judges now have stopped jailing offenders who have been convicted, but never appeared in court.

The chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, Judge Donald Beatty, said in a September memorandum to all state summary court judges that it’s illegal to jail anyone who has neither waived their right to a lawyer nor had a lawyer in the first place.

The directive affects all of South Carolina -- county magistrates and municipal courts. The directive, which was sent to all judges on Sept. 15, affects warrants for convictions that have not been served or executed.

Summary courts are magistrate and municipal courts that hear most of South Carolina’s cases for mostly misdemeanor offenses that would carry 30 days or less in jail. Those are cases that include driving under suspension and simple possession of marijuana.

The City of Rock Hill, which has its own municipal court that handles thousands of cases every year, is reviewing about 1,800 warrants, officials said. The city of York is reviewing the memorandum to determine how to proceed, said Municipal Judge Bridget Wright. The city of Tega Cay and towns of Fort Mill and Clover also have municipal courts and judges who must comply with the ruling.

The ruling means a person who skips court, and is convicted, cannot be sent to jail, according to Beatty’s memorandum.

“Absent a waiver of counsel, or the appointment of counsel for an indigent defendant, summary court judges shall not impose a sentence of jail time, and are limited to imposing a sentence of a fine only for those defendants, if convicted,” the memorandum obtained by The Herald states.

Judges have not been told to recall bench warrants, according to a written statement sent to The Herald from S.C. Court Administration, which handles policy for the court system. But court administration agrees with the decision to review all the warrants, the statement says.

Some York County magistrates have told deputies to return all outstanding warrants for review, said York County Sheriff Kevin Tolson.

“We have thousands of warrants from these cases that date back many years that we have returned,” Tolson said. “Right now we are in a holding pattern on all commitments.”

Before the Sept. 15 directive, deputies had served bench warrants and immediately taken a convicted person to jail, Tolson said.

No more.

Tolson and Heather Mouzon, staff lawyer for the sheriff’s office, said the memorandum ends a practice that has gone on for years.

“(The new directive) punishes people who show up who potentially face jail time, and rewards those who don’t show up,” Mouzon said.

Tolson and Mouzon said the ruling likely will mean more people are arrested and immediately taken to a magistrate. That first appearance where a magistrate explains the right to counsel would satisfy Beatty’s directive.

Cases used to be handled by what was called a “courtesy summons.” The person was charged, given a copy of a ticket, and released without ever going to jail for booking or appearing before a magistrate. Those tickets also could now become obsolete, Tolson said.

Beatty’s directive also tells judges that a “reasonable payment plan” for fines must be imposed, and it’s illegal to imprison a convicted person if that person can’t pay the full fine when they’re found guilty.

Earlier this year, The American Civil Liberties Union filed lawsuits in Beaufort County and Lexington County over the issue of people being jailed when they could not pay fines. The ACLU also challenged cases where people were not told about their right to counsel.

Court administration officials in South Carolina cite those pending lawsuits, and the potential for more lawsuits if Beatty’s directive is not followed, according to the statement sent to The Herald from the S.C. Court Administration.

Chris Wellborn, a Rock Hill defense lawyer and past officer with the South Carolina and national associations of criminal defense lawyers, said there should be nothing controversial about Beatty’s ruling because the Constitution guarantees a right to a lawyer, and that people can’t be imprisoned in “debtors’ jails” for being poor.

Several supreme court cases -- cases cited by Beatty in the directive and in lawsuits against South Carolina -- have upheld those rights for more than five decades, Wellborn said.

“The takeaway for the public should be that Justice Beatty said enough is enough, South Carolina, you have to follow the Constitution and law as it has existed for the past 52 years,” Wellborn said.

No York County magistrates would comment about the ruling. Neither Chester nor Lancaster sheriff officials would comment on whether they were recalling existing bench warrants, but police in Chester and Lancaster counties said they are aware of the ruling.

Rock Hill City Solicitor Chris Barton and Municipal Judge Jane Modla did not comment on the ruling, but through Katie Quinn, spokesperson for the city of Rock Hill, the city and its court system released this statement:

“City solicitors and municipal court judges work to ensure justice is served, while maintaining the rights of both the accused and the victims. Rock Hill municipal court is ahead of the curve when it comes to evaluating if someone is financially unable to hire a lawyer, and therefore qualifies for a public defender. Prior to any legislative mandate, the City has had an agreement with the public defender’s office for more than 10 years to provide representation to eligible individuals.

“Financial ability to pay and cooperation with the court is taken into consideration when solicitors recommend sentences, and when judges make their decision. Of course, past offenses also play a role. It’s important that people don’t just ignore court dates and fines. If they can’t pay, it’s important they explain their financial situation, attend the assigned court date, and cooperate with the process.

“Following the memo from Chief Justice Beatty, the Municipal Court is in the process of reviewing all existing bench warrants to ensure documentation exists showing legal representation was either had or waived. If bench warrants are determined not to be valid, fines will still be outstanding. The Municipal Court intends to comply fully with Chief Justice Beatty’s written guidance.”

The 6th Circuit public defenders’ office, which covers Chester and Lancaster counties, also has people in all magistrate and municipal courts in those counties said, Public Devender Mike Lifsey.

Lifsey said no judge or court or police agency should be surprised by Beatty’s directive. Lifsey said all persons charged are told of their right to a lawyer at the time of the charges in what is known as a Miranda warning.

The directive has little impact, on higher level criminal cases that are heard in South Carolina circuit courts because offenders in those cases would have been arrested and appeared before a magistrate where they are screened for a public defender, said Kevin Brackett, 16th Circuit Solicitor for York and Union counties. Brackett’s office helped create a York County DUI court where his prosecutors handle many of the cases, as well as domestic violence court.

“In York County, public defenders are available to all defendants charged in summary court who are determined to be indigent,” Brackett said. “My office is funded to prosecute DUI cases in magistrate court. It is my hope that one day professional prosecutors will handle every criminal case filed in our summary courts.”