South Carolina

Beaufort, Bluffton must ensure poor people have right to a lawyer as part of settlement

The town of Bluffton and city of Beaufort must ensure poor people facing jail time have an attorney, as part of an agreement filed Monday that could have repercussions throughout the state.

The local governments must also ensure that indigent defendants’ right to an attorney is clearly communicated — and must free any current inmates who were jailed without being offered legal representation — as part of the settlement stemming from a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2017.

Municipal courts handle misdemeanor-level criminal offenses and traffic violations within city limits. Towns aren’t required to have municipal courts, but if they do, they must provide legal defense for people who financially qualify.

Civil rights advocates say the issue of municipalities denying proper legal defense is statewide. They hope the Beaufort County agreement can establish a precedent.

“The real answer to that is time will tell,” said Susan Dunn, legal director of the ACLU in South Carolina. “There are no obligations on Beaufort and Bluffton that are different than the Constitutional obligations on every municipality in this state. And any municipality that is not providing constitutionally appropriate defense attorneys in municipal courts needs to change how they’ve been doing business.”

Beaufort and Bluffton will contract with the 14th Circuit Public Defender’s Office for an attorney to provide indigent defense as part of the agreement. The town of Port Royal, which was not part of the lawsuit, will also participate and share the costs.

Hilton Head Island’s municipal court was dissolved as of February.

Beaufort and Bluffton have contracted with private attorneys to provide the service while the lawsuit is pending. Dunn said she doesn’t think any current inmates will be affected by the ruling, since the towns have taken steps to address the issue since the case was filed.

City Manager Bill Prokop said the city’s court costs are not expected to change much. Prokop said the parties in the case want S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty made aware of the terms in hopes that a standard can be established statewide.

“We can’t have one thing for Bluffton, Port Royal and Beaufort and the rest of the state doing something different,” Prokop said.

The ACLU sued Bluffton and Beaufort in October 2017, alleging civil rights violations on behalf of three people the lawsuit said served jail time without having been properly offered an attorney.

As part of the settlement, Bluffton and Beaufort will pay a total of $250,000 to the ACLU for damages, attorney fees and other costs. The money will be paid through the state Insurance Reserve Fund.

In denying a motion to dismiss the case last year, a federal judge acknowledged the widespread problem.

“I mean, it’s not (going away), but boy would I love it to be a way in which y’all could do a model — the town of Bluffton, the town of Beaufort could be a model how to fix this problem for everybody in South Carolina,” U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel said during a hearing in April 2018, according to the court transcript. “And maybe the talent in this room jointly figuring a way to do that is really worth everybody’s time....So why not fix it now and we all do a little justice in the process, you know?”