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County sues state over indigent defense

DAVENPORT — Two weeks after filing a lawsuit against the Department of Health and Social Services, Lincoln County isn’t done suing the state.

The county joined Pacific and Yakima Counties, along with the Washington State Association of Counties, in asserting through a filing in Thurston County Superior Court on Friday, Sept. 8, that the state’s trial court indigent defense system is unconstitutional. The lawsuit asks the court to order the state to provide adequate funding for indigent defense services.

Lawsuit documents state that the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth and 14th Amendments guarantee effective legal counsel in criminal proceedings and shouldn’t depend on the financial resources of the accused, but the state delegates the “vast majority” of indigent defense obligations to counties.

“The right to counsel is an essential component of access to justice and is a fundamental right,” complaint documentation states. “Every criminal defendant, rich or poor, must receive a meaningful defense.”

In Lincoln County, one public defense attorney, Dave Hearrean, is contracted for all non-conflict District Court cases and many Superior Court cases, while other cases are assigned to attorneys paid on an hourly basis.

“The State’s existing system of minimal state funding of trial court indigent defense services forces plaintiff counties to spend a substantial portion of their constrained budgets on indigent defense services, resulting in systemic inequities in the provision of indigent criminal defense in the plaintiff counties and throughout the state,” documentation says. “This Court’s grant of declaratory and injunctive relief will redress directly the harms caused to plaintiffs by the State’s existing system of trial court indigent defense.”

Unlike many states, Washington has no statewide commission overseeing indigent defense services, documents state. The state requires counties to adopt standards for public defense services.

Total indigent defense costs paid by the State fell from about 5% in 2012 to 3.2% in 2021, the complaint states. County revenue sources aren’t substantial enough to fund indigent defense services along with other necessary public services, it continues.

“Counties’ primary unrestricted tax revenue source is the general property tax,” the complaint states. “The Legislature, however, has imposed a 1% growth cap on the general property tax. As a result, property tax collection grows at a rate significantly lower than the rate of increase in the cost of providing critical county services, including indigent defense.”

The plaintiffs ask that the Court find the State’s trial court indigent defense system in violation of the Sixth and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, require the state to provide regular and sufficient funding for such services and award reasonable attorney fees, expenses and costs.

“This has been in the works for four to five years,” Commissioner Scott Hutsell said. “Now counties are not backing down.”

Author Bio

Drew Lawson, Editor

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Drew Lawson is the editor of the Davenport Times. He is a graduate of Eastern Washington University.

 

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