An experimental plan to provide free legal counsel to some indigent defendants in the District traffic court has been approved by the Board of Judges of the D.C. Superior Court. The plan is expected to be implemented Jan. 16 for a four-month test period.
Under the new plan, proposed by Chief Judge Harold H. Greene, indigent Persons charged with traffic offenses for which they can demand a jury trial - such as drunk driving and negligent homicide - will be entitled to free legal counsel. The plan was approved Dec. 8.
Last July, Greene authorized the appointment of court-paid lawyers for indigent traffic defendants who were being held in jail because they were unable to post bond.
Otherwise, under the present system, traffic court judges inform defendants they have a right to an attorney and will appoint one at the defendant's request, but no court funds are specifically set aside for the lawyer's fees.
Under the experimental plan, Green said,counsel will be provided by court-paid attorneys or unpaid law lstudents, who are authorized by the court to represent clients in traffic cases. The Plan was approved Dec. 8.
Interviewers from the city's Public Defender Service will determine if a defendant is financially eligible for the free legal counsel.
In some instances, judges have made free legal counsel available to poor defendants in cases where the person has a right to a jury trial, Greene said in a memorandum to the judges, but such counsel has not been regularly available. The new procedure will establish a uniform policy, Greene said.
Lawywers who are appointed to represent indigent clients are paid with federal funds provided to the Superior Court under the D.C. Criminal Justice Act (CJA).
In a 1972 ruling, the Supreme Court said that in cases where a jail term is likely upon conviction, a defentdant has a right to a court-paid attorney, unless the defendant waives that right.
Greene has maintained in the past, however, that the Superior Court did not have enough CJA funds to provide lawyers for indigent defendants in traffic court.
In recommending that more court-appointed attorneys be made available in traffic court, Greene noted a recent rise in jury-demandable trraffic cases - due primarily to a D.C. police crack down on drunken drivers.
Greene,in the memorandum, did not indicate what the new plan would cost, but noted that "most defendants in traffic cases are not indigent."
In addition, the plan will continue to provide court-paid attorneys for indigent defendants who are held on bond and for defendants who are temporarily detained in jail prior to their first appearance in traffic court.
Greene recommended against appointment of free lawyers for indigent defendants in minor traffic cases, such as parking or moving violations which do not carry the right to a jury trial.
"There would appear to be no way, given the anticipated size of CJA appropriations, that free counsel could be provided for all traffic defendants," he said in his memorandu,m.
He noted that most minor offenses theoretically can carry a sentence of 10 days in jail, although the present policy is not to impose sentences for minor offenses.
In these cases, Greene recommended that the Judges adopt a policy that jail sentances not be imposed in cases where the offender does not have a right to a jury trial. Such a policy would avoid any problems with the Supereme Court's ruling regarding the right to an attorney if imprisonment is likely, Greene said.
Green also noted that the D.C. City Council is considering legislation that would decriminalize all such minor violations.
Under the experimental paln, however, judges will retain the authority to depart from the non-imprisonment policy, particularly in more serious cases, Greene said. If a judge expects to imprison an indigent defendant in such a case, a court-paid lawyer should be appointed, Greene said.