D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Harold H. Greene yesterday implemented a new plan to provide court-appointed attorneys for indigent defendants in the city's traffic court when the defendants are ordered to jail because they are unable to post bond for their release.
Green, who until now has been reluctant to spend money available for court-appointed attorneys in traffic cases, was apparently persuaded to make some funds available after instances of lengthy pretrial jail detention were brought to his attention.
The action by the chief judge follows a D.C. bar study of 125 traffic court defendants who were held, unable to post bond, at the D.C. jail over a two-month period late last year. The study found that 55 per cent of those defendants were detained at the jail for an average of 10 to 11 days, without legal counsel.
The study found hat nine defendants during that period remained in jail for a month or longer. In one case, a defendant was detained for 58 days on a bond imposed in traffic court.None of the defendants had a lawyer, the study said.
Of the 125 cases studied, 45 per cent of the defendants were released on bond within 24 hours of their arrival at the jail, according to the bar study. According to Erhardt, the defendants who were the subject of the bar's study were charged with various traffic offenses including driving while intoxicated, driving without a license and parking violations involving $300 and $400 in fines.
Thomas Guidiboni, the court's Criminal Justice Act coordinator, said yesterday he estimates that under the new plan, about four attorneys will be appointed per day at a cost of about $100 per case or less. Based on this estimate, the new program will cost about $24,000 a year.
There are usually held in the D.C. jail on a given day according to J. W. Erhardt, who conducted the study. Erhardt is director of the bar's Jail Project, which provides legal assistance to the city's prison inmates.
The bar maintains that traffic court defendants have a legal right to attorneys if they face prison sentence upon conviction or if they are detained in jail before trial. Appointment of an attorney does not necessarily mean that a traffic court defendant will be able to post bond and therefore be released pending trial.
In 1972, the Supreme Court established the right to legal counsel in any case where the defendant faces a prison sentence upon conviction. Under that ruling, if the trial judge determines that imposition of a jail term is likely upon conviction, the judge must appoint an attorney to the case, unless the defendant waives his right to counsel.
Chief Judge Greene has consistently maintained that federal funds available to the Superior Court under the D.C. Criminal Justice Act (CJA) are insufficient to pay for court-appointed counsel in all traffic cases where indigents are involved.
In a memorandum distributed to Superior Court judges yesterday. Greene said, however. ". . . it would appear to be appropriate that counsel be appointed in those traffic cases where an indigent defendant actually suffers a loss of liberty."
"The court is simply not going to take the $1.8 million in CJA funds (available yearly) . . . and spend it all on people going through stop signs and red lights and not have it left over for people charged with murder and robbery," Greene said in an interview yesterday.
In making the appointments of court-paid lawyers. Greene proposed in the memorandum that the judges make maximum use of various clinical programs now in operation at the Superior Court in order to conserve CJA money. In one such program, unpaid law students are permitted to handle misdemeanor cases, which would include all traffic related offenses.
Prison terms for traffic violations can extend from 10 days for running a red traffic light to six months for drunk driving to one year for operating a motor vehicle after the suspension or revocation of the driver's license, according to a spokesman for the D.C. Corporation Counsel's Office, which prosecutes traffic cases.
Bonds are set in traffic court at the discretion of the trial judge to assure the defendant's presence at trial.
The practice of judges in Traffic Court until now has been to advise a defendant of his right to an attorney and to appoint one at the defendant's request, but no funds have been available to pay the lawyers fee.
Under the new plan, at 3 p.m. every day, traffic court defendants who were ordered detained because they were unable to post bond will be interviewed by court personnel to determine if they meet financial eligibility requirements for a court-paid lawyer.
The Traffic Court judge will then appoint lawyers for those defendants determined to be eligible, Greene said. Greene characterized the plan as "experimental" and said he expects it will be reviewed in the fall.