Study sees injustice in SC’s lower courts

Many defendants in South Carolina’s lower courts are not advised of their constitutional rights, trials are held without any lawyer present in the courtroom and those found guilty are sometimes given the choice of paying a fine they cannot afford or going to jail, in effect creating a debtors’ prison, a national study of the state’s magistrate and municipal courts has found.

The study, “Summary Injustice,” by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, was issued Monday following observations by attorneys in 27 lower courts in December 2014 and July 2015.

South Carolina has about 319 magistrates and about 200 municipal courts, called summary courts, that handle misdemeanor charges ranging from traffic violations to shoplifting and drug possession.

The report paints a bleak picture of what can happen to poor and unrepresented defendants in the state’s lower courts, where often no lawyer is present, cases are sometimes prosecuted by police and thousands face criminal charges that can send them to jail for 30 days with a criminal record.

Among the report’s other findings are that the courts often fail to inform defendants of their right to counsel and refuse to provide counsel to the poor at all stages of the criminal process.

“When you go to a summary court in South Carolina, you find yourself in a judicial netherworld where the police officer who made the arrest acts as the prosecutor, the judge may not have a law degree, and there are no lawyers in sight,” said Susan Dunn, legal director of the ACLU of South Carolina. “By operating as if the Sixth Amendment doesn’t exist, these courts weigh the scales of justice so heavily against defendants that they often receive fines and jail time they don’t deserve.”

Magistrates and municipal judges are not required to hold law degrees in South Carolina. Newly appointed magistrates must have a four-year degree and both types of judges must undergo training and certification exams. Magistrates who are not attorneys must observe 10 trials before handling one of their own.

Summary judges are provided with a manual that offers information about procedures, how the court system works and a defendant's rights. In fact, the state requires all magistrates and municipal judges to use a checklist when handling criminal cases. In those cases in which a jail sentence is likely, judges are required to inform defendants of their right to counsel and to court-appointed counsel if they are financially unable to hire their own lawyer.

Among the courts observed for the study was Landrum Municipal Court in Spartanburg County.

The report includes the story of a woman, identified as AP, who appeared in the Landrum court last year on a charge of possession of drug paraphernalia.

“Without an attorney, AP pled guilty to the charge, while also providing an explanation to the judge that, if true, would have in fact made her innocent of the allegations,” the report stated. “The judge made clear during sentencing that he did not believe her story and asked AP if she had $620 with her to pay the fine. AP said she did not, but had just started a job at a fast food restaurant. The judge scoffed and said she would not be able to pay with that job and sentenced her to 30 days.”

The woman, according to the report, then began “sobbing, explaining she has two children, begging for time to pay, and asking why others were given time to pay and she was not. ... AP was handcuffed and taken to jail.”

The Landrum court also was mentioned in a section discussing how defendants are sometimes not advised of their constitutional rights. “(D)efendants were sentenced to jail time without ever being informed of their legal rights.”

Most of those in the summary courts are not represented by a lawyer, according to the study, although the U.S. Constitution guarantees those facing criminal charges with possible time behind bars with the right to an attorney, even if they cannot afford one.

“Many times they are not even told of their right to have a lawyer, much less at the state’s expense,” the study reported. A lack of representation by a lawyer also is prevalent before trial, the study reported. Many defendants in bond hearings face a judge without any representation and cannot afford the "modest" bonds set, so they remain in jail.

“As a result, many people often serve the maximum possible sentence prior to being found guilty or, as in some cases, not guilty,” the report stated.

The report cited the case of MB, a Beaufort County single mother charged with DUI on a moped. At her bond hearing, the judge told her she had more than $1,000 in unpaid fines due the state Department of Motor Vehicles and set that as her bond amount, saying he could not tell her what the fines were about.

Unable to pay the bond, the woman stayed in jail for three weeks until Thanksgiving when she asked what was happening to her case. Brought to court, she was offered to be released on time served if she pled guilty. She refused, saying she wanted a lawyer.

Unbeknownst to her, her case came up while she was in jail, she was reported as having failed to appear and tried anyway, found guilty and sentenced to the $1,022 fine. A bench warrant was issued for her arrest, even though she had been in jail the whole time.

According to the report, the woman finally was released after she served 30 days behind bars, the maximum sentence for her offense. It turned out there were no DMV fines.

A clerk found the failed-to-appear error and filed a motion for a new trial. The woman eventually found an attorney and the charges were dismissed and expunged. But the woman lost her job and spent Thanksgiving away from her children.

Poor defendants charged with low-level offenses “suffer disproportionately” in summary courts, the study concluded. “Many judges offer a ‘choice’ to defendants: pay a fine or spend time in jail. If the accused cannot afford the fine, or the judge simply suspects the accused will not be able to pay the fine, that person will be sentenced to jail merely because she is poor.”