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ACLU files class action lawsuit against Utah over your right to a lawyer

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SALT LAKE CITY — A class action lawsuit has been leveled against Utah, accusing the state of not doing enough to provide people with attorneys who cannot afford them in court.

Six men are suing the state for failing to provide them with adequate legal representation, assisted by the ACLU of Utah and the firm Holland & Hart. Under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, you have a right to a lawyer if you cannot afford one.

One of the plaintiffs, Skylar Garner, is facing a criminal charge in Carbon County for violating a no-contact order. He alleged in the lawsuit he has met with his court-appointed attorney for less than five minutes. Anthony Murdzak alleged in the lawsuit he was jailed earlier this year but held for 10 days and never once met with a court-appointed lawyer.

“Following the arraignment, Murdzak had not met with defense counsel, had received no discovery, was unaware of when he would next meet with his defense counsel or when a preliminary hearing was set for his case,” the lawsuit states.

ACLU of Utah Legal Director John Mejia speaks about a lawsuit filed against Utah over alleged Sixth Amendment violations. (Photo courtesy ACLU of Utah)

ACLU of Utah Legal Director John Mejia speaks about a lawsuit filed against Utah over alleged Sixth Amendment violations. (Photo courtesy ACLU of Utah)

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah said Tuesday that more than 80 percent of Utahns cannot afford a lawyer, so they must have the benefit of a public defender. Those lawyers are typically paid for by counties and municipalities, but have no state oversight. However, the ACLU has claimed, the system is failing. A series of audits, including one commissioned by the Sixth Amendment Center, have found significant lapses in the court system providing counsel, including underfunded and overworked public defense attorneys. The Utah State Legislature has recently attempted to address it by providing more oversight of public defenders and funding.

“The state has known about these persistent and egregious issues with its public defense system for years. And yet, the state has continued to abdicate its responsibilities in this area, offering neither funding nor oversight to assist counties and municipalities in the provision of defense to those who cannot afford a private attorney,” ACLU of Utah Legal Director John Mejia said Tuesday. “The legislation passed during the 2016 Legislative Session is far beyond ‘too little, too late.'”

The Utah Attorney General’s Office said Tuesday it was reviewing the lawsuit.

“The timing of this lawsuit is particularly unfortunate,” Utah Federal Solicitor Parker Douglas said in a statement. “Over the last year, the Judicial Committee, of which I am a member, has worked to assure that Utah appropriately responds to the needs of the indigent accused. The Committee’s work led to the 2016 passage of S.B. 155, sponsored by Senator Todd Weiler and Representative Dan McCay. After going into effect on May 10, the bill created a commission to ensure proper indigent defense and ways to fund those services.

“The bill was the result of an extraordinary effort by the Utah Judiciary, the Utah Legislature, members of the county attorneys, and many other state officials, as well as leaders of state and county criminal defense groups. To ask a judge to review these measures now, before any opportunity to see the results of that effort, is premature, and will require a single judge to review the collective efforts of the many interested stakeholders who have spent thousands of hours addressing the same issues.”

In a statement, House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said lawmakers need to do more to address the public defender system.

“Utah has made significant efforts this past session through Senate Bill 155 by creating an Indigent Defense Commission. However, the bill does not go far enough to fund our constitutional obligation under the Sixth Amendment to pay for indigent defense,” he said in the statement. “In order to ensure true justice for all our citizens, the state must guarantee the right to legal counsel by providing on-going, full funding of indigent defense and the ending of flat fee contracting. An individual’s rights should not be based on income or social status. We look forward to working with the ACLU and our legislative colleagues to find legislative solutions to this very important issue.”