Indigent and need a lawyer? It may cost you the Fourth Amendment.

Add this one to your “criminalization of poverty” files. It seems that McLennan County, Tex., has a new public employee:

The presence of a new McLennan County indigent defense investigator has substantially reduced the number of requests for court-appointed, county-funded attorneys.

McLennan County Indigent Defense Coordinator Cathy Edwards said she has seen about a 40 percent drop in requests since sheriff’s office Detective Eric Carrizales began investigating them in November. Edwards said she received as many as 50 applicants in a week prior to Carrizales’ arrival. Now, she sees about 30.

Carrizales’ investigations also help put Edwards’ mind at ease when granting a request.

“It makes me feel better to know that what Eric’s finding — the ones he’s going out and investigating — I’m making the right decision by appointing these folks an attorney,” Edwards said. “These folks really don’t have anything.” . . .

Carrizales spends a couple of hours a day at the courthouse sifting through applications and going to applicants’ homes to talk about their answers.

If someone is found lying on their form, they could be charged with tampering with a government document, which is a third-degree felony, sheriff’s office Capt. M.R. “Bubba” Colyer said.

Two people have been arrested for such crimes since November.

“It’s been very effective,” Carrizales said. “Word got out that someone’s knocking on doors.”

Since Carrizales began, people have refused court-appointed attorneys because they don’t want an officer coming to their home, Edwards said.

I can imagine. I’m sure that if you looked hard enough, you could find people who have abused the indigent defense system. But the fact that they have arrested only two people in seven months suggests to me that such abuse isn’t exactly breaking McLennan County. You could argue that the decline in people requesting a public defender indicates that the system is catching scofflaws. But you could just as easily argue that the thought of a cop coming to their house, rifling through their stuff and perhaps looking for other charges to tack on has convinced some low-income people that they’re better off doing without an attorney. There may have been a 40 percent drop in the number of people who asked for a public defender in McLennan County, but I wonder what percentage of those people ended up facing their charges without an attorney at all.

Which brings me to the second issue — just what should qualify as “indigent.” Certainly, people who simply don’t have the money to hire an attorney should qualify. But should we expect people accused of crimes to risk eviction by sacrificing their rent money in order to hire an attorney? Should they have to sell off their possessions? Cash in a retirement account or a kid’s college fund? What happens if a defendant does one or all of those things and the charges are later dropped, or he’s acquitted by a jury? In the overwhelming majority of the country, he isn’t going to get any of that money back.

How much money a defendant can expect to spend on his defense also depends on the seriousness of the charges he’s facing. For some felony charges, the defendant could be fairly well-off at the beginning of the trial, but in poverty by the time it’s over. So drawing lines at income levels isn’t going to work. Thanks to the Supreme Court, prosecutors can also now freeze or seize a good chunk of a defendant’s income under asset forfeiture laws before trial, without even a hearing, effectively preventing him from hiring his preferred legal representation. There have even been federal cases where the government has seized the defendant’s assets while simultaneously pointing to the defendant’s wealth in arguing that he isn’t entitled to a public defender.

Finally, these fears about well-off people bilking the system overlooks the fact that most people don’t want a public defender. I think public defenders are often unfairly maligned. I’ve come into contact with some in the course of my work who are truly excellent and know the ins and outs of their particular jurisdiction better than any private attorney possibly could. But there are also plenty who live down to the reputation, and in much of the country, the indigent defense system itself is a holy mess. Even the best public defenders will strain under a heavy enough workload, and that will start to affect the quality of the representation they provide to their clients.

For the purpose of this discussion, my point is only that there’s a widespread perception that public defenders provide lower-quality legal representation. So I just have hard time believing that there’s some epidemic of wealthy people hiding assets, lying on government forms and otherwise scheming to put their freedom in the hands of an overworked public defender.

Via “Gideon” at the “A Public Defender” blog, who has more commentary here and here.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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