Category Archives: Public Defense

Washington supreme court: Public defense has its limits

Public defenders can only handle 150 felony cases a year under a new rule issued today by the Washington State Supreme Court. Such defense attorneys of those who cannot afford counsel will only be able to take on 300 misdemeanors per year as well, the court decided on an overall 6-3 vote.

The impetus for establishing the first-ever limits is to ensure criminal defendants receive an attentive lawyer not overburdened by other cases. That said, could the decision actually cause a spike in costs to the county and state governments?

Bill Houser says no, at least as far as Kitsap County is concerned.

Houser said Kitsap County’s Office of Public Defense has abided by a standard similar to the one just mandated by the court since the office’s inception. Attorneys have always been held to 150 felonies or less, he said, and if it’s a murder or “three strikes” case, their caseload must decrease even further.

Houser did say that some attorneys handling simple misdemeanors in the county do eclipse 300 at times.

Bear in mind, private attorneys can keep the caseloads they please, as their paychecks come from the clients they serve.

The standards will take effect in September 2013.

UPDATE: The $1 Florida felony — could it happen here?

The case of a Florida man charged with a felony for the theft of $1 worth of liquid has reverberated around the country. In case you hadn’t heard, here’s the gist: man goes into an East Naples fast food joint, gets a cup for (free) water, and uses said cup to help himself to a fountain drink.

The manager asked him to pay. He refused, the cops came and took him away, according to fellow Scripps’ website

Not every theft in Florida is a felony. But it turns out the Sunshine state has a pesky law that raises a petty theft charge to a felony when the person has multiple petty theft convictions. That takes the penalty the man faces from a maximum one year stay in his local jail to the possibility of five years in a Florida prison.

So, do petty thieves in our home state of Washington face that same fate? The short answer is no not exactly.

Clarke Tibbits, head of the Kitsap County Office of Public Defense, says defendants here can purloin goods worth less than $750 repeatedly and only face a gross misdemeanor each time. “Multiple (third-degree thefts) don’t result in felonies,” he says, noting he once worked a case in which the defendant had a whopping 27 shoplifting convictions on his record.

There are some exceptions: if the theft exceeds $750, that bumps a charge up to a felony (and possible prison time). Also, the defendant can be charged with burglary if he had previously shoplifted and been trespassed from the place he’d returned to steal from.

UPDATE, 4.30.12: A reader informed me Monday that there is indeed another possibility for a felony to come from shoplifting: a state law passed in 2006 known as “retail theft with extenuating circumstances.” A person can be convicted of that crime if:

(a) To facilitate the theft, the person leaves the mercantile establishment through a designated emergency exit;

(b) The person was, at the time of the theft, in possession of an item, article, implement, or device designed to overcome security systems including, but not limited to, lined bags or tag removers; or

(c) The person committed theft at three or more separate and distinct mercantile establishments within a one hundred eighty-day period.

Obviously, (c) applies here. So indeed Washington does have a felony for a frequent shoplifter — but the thefts must have occurred within 180 days.

I must apologize for this omission, but it’s important to set the record straight.

It’s worth noting that these distinctions govern only the amount of time one would face for filling up that free cup with a fountain drink. In our state, there is no theft so de minimus that it could not lead to a pair of handcuffs in the eyes of the law.

A Conversation with Kitsap’s new Top Public Defender

Come mid-August, Kitsap County will have a new lawyer to oversee public defense in Kitsap County. And while we’ve announced the county’s hiring of Clarke Tibbits for the post, I wanted to learn a little more about this North Central Washington lawyer that will bring his expertise westward starting in August. Here’s a brief interview with him.

His position is the result of a growing amount of state grant money to “enhance” indigent defense in counties around the state. Kitsap County Clerk Dave Peterson chose to hire a top public defender after reading a consultant’s report on how Kitsap should best spend the money. Unfortunately, the county’s first choice to lead the post didn’t work out. And enter Mr. Tibbits.

Continue reading

Public Defense: The Next Steps

Kitsap County’s public defenders had already been bracing for change. Turns out there was more in store than they thought.

Those lawyers, who take on cases for those who can’t afford a lawyer, have seen a sizable drop in their felony case loads in the past year. Lawyers at some firms have even been laid off.

They had already been waiting for the results of the so-called “Jack Hill” report, which calls for the county to pay for a lawyer to provide oversight and quality control for the system.

Here’s another thing to factor in: In 2002, 15 firms received indigent defense cases from the county clerk’s office. Now, 18 have contracts to receive them.

Thus, more lawyers, less cases.

Continue reading

Embodying Gideon

Brush off your high school government textbooks: who here remembers Clarence Earl Gideon?

I’ll leave it to the Washington Courts web site to explain it:

In 1961, a penniless man was hauled into a Florida court, charged with breaking into a pool hall, and convicted without ever speaking to an attorney other than the prosecutor. From prison, Clarence Earl Gideon hand-wrote a letter to the U.S. Supreme Court saying he did not have a fair trial because he had had no attorney to help him, and asked the Court to throw out his conviction. In 1963, the Supreme Court handed down the landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright that all citizens are entitled to legal counsel when charged with a felony, and the states must provide counsel to those who cannot afford it.

As we’ve talked about on the Crime and Justice Forum before, the state of Washington is changing the way its 39 counties fund public defense, through grants.

Continue reading

Public Defense: State Funding Fight to Keep Itself Honest

Grant County’s public defense debacle seemed to serve as a lesson to the state legislature: while indigent defense funding might not always top the list of priorities for our elected representatives and senators, lack of funding for it constitutes a violation of our constitutional rights.

In essence, the government charges you with a crime, but the very same government, for those who can’t afford it, also pays for you to fight your charges and thus attempt to keep itself honest.

Continue reading