Thursday, June 30, 2011

(Mendocino) Grand jury: More should be done to collect from people getting public defenders

By Keely Brazil The Daily Journal
Updated: 06/29/2011 11:59:41 PM PDT

Following the recent arrest of 19 persons charged in a single incident, the Mendocino County grand jury looked at how these kinds of cases affect the offices of both the Public Defender and Alternate Defender, where many of the county's defendants turn for legal representation.

They found that the new county DA is likely saving money by charging defendants in the same case separately. They also want the public defenders to do more to collect from people they represent for free.

If a defendant is found by the court to be indigent, he or she is eligible to receive public defender services. When appointed by the court, the Public Defenders Office must provide legal representation for any person charged with felonies or misdemeanors and unable to afford a private attorney.

The Public Defenders Office also represents minors in delinquency proceedings, petitioners for the restoration of rights, applications for pardon, alleged sexually violent predators or mentally disordered sex offenders, hearings to determine mental competency, conservatorship proceedings, and various post trial or probation proceedings.

In cases where the Public Defenders Office declares a conflict of interest (it is already representing one client in a multi-client case), the Alternate Defender Office is appointed by the court to act as a second public defender. A conflict of interest can occur when multiple defendants participate in a single crime and are charged as co-defendants. In many cases it is in the best interest of a defendant to testify against co-defendants, in exchange for a reduced sentence and that means only one person in a group of co-defendants will be assigned an attorney from the Public Defenders Office.

When the Public Defenders Office and Alternate Defenders Office both have one client in a multi-defendant case, they declare a conflict of interest and then a private attorney may be called from the Conflicts Attorney List. "Conflict" attorneys are private attorneys who agree to a set hourly fee paid by the taxpayers to represent indigent clients.

According to the grand jury, since January of this year - or the beginning of the term of newly elected District Attorney David Eyster - in cases which have multiple defendants, Eyster has been charging each defendant separately (not as a group of co-defendants like in the case of 19 defendants). The grand jury found that doing so is economically prudent as it keeps conflicts to a minimum and allows the public defenders and alternate defenders to handle more cases and the county to revert less often to private for-fee attorneys.

The report states, "In the case of multiple defendants, each defendant has individual representation; taxpayers subsidize defendants' legal costs. Because incidents of crime have increased in our community, these legal costs have risen over recent years. Charging defendants separately may save the County money; as fewer defendants will need the private conflict' attorneys."

The grand jury also encourages the Public Defenders Office and Alternate Defenders Office to do more to collect reimbursement from defendants able to pay attorney's fees. In light of the fact that the Court can order an indigent defendant to pay a service fee at the end of the case, or bill a defendant deemed ineligible for public defender services, the grand jury recommends that the Public Defenders Office and Alternate Defenders Office develop a procedure to regularly request County reimbursement for legal services at the end of a case.

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