South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty has sent out a directive to the lower courts forcing judges, attorneys, and law enforcement to reassess how cases are handled in their court rooms. The notice was sent out on September 15th and primarily focuses on the proceedings that occur in the summary courts.
In the message, Beatty addresses constitutional rights violations for defendants that he has found far too frequent come before him. He states that too many defendants are being jailed before even being given access to legal counsel.
“It has continually come to my attention that defendants, who are neither represented by counsel nor have waived counsel, are being sentenced to imprisonment. This is a clear violation of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and numerous opinions of the Supreme Court of the United States,” Beatty said.
“All defendants facing criminal charges in your courts that carry the possibility of imprisonment must be informed of their right to counsel and, if indigent, their right to court-appointed counsel prior to proceeding with trial. Absent a waiver of counsel, or the appointment of counsel for an indigent defendant, summary court judges shall not impose a sentence of jail time, and are limited to imposing a sentence of a fine only for those defendants, if convicted,” added Beatty.
“When imposing a fine, consideration should be given to a defendant’s ability to pay. If a fine is imposed, an unrepresented defendant should be advised of the amount of the fine and when the fine must be paid. This directive would also apply to those defendants who fail to appear at trial and are tried in their absence,” Beatty continued.
“I am mindful of the constraints that you face in your courts, but these principles of due process to all defendants who come before you cannnot be abridged,” wrote Beatty.
In light of the directive that was handed down by Beatty, Irmo Municipal Court’s top judge recalled all bench warrants and removed the names from the National Crime Information Center system.
Law enforcement agencies are also caught off guard and are scrambling to right the tilting ship. Richland County Sheriff’s Department has said that the directive has created a “nightmare” for the agency.
The “nightmare” directive comes after a damning report released by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the ACLU, and the Foundation for Criminal Justice found that in five counties, “egregious, repeated constitutional violations happened daily and in hundreds of cases.” The report was titled “Rush to Judgement: How South Carolina’s Summary Courts Fail to Protect Constitutional Rights.”
The group’s findings result in many defendants losing their ability sustain the life-altering consequences of a criminal conviction, lose their ability, and are weighed down with fines and fees, the non-payment of which would have a domino effect for years to come.
The Sixth Amendment protects the citizen’s right to counsel and applies in state courts through the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. It states “… holding that absent a knowing and intelligent waiver, no person may be imprisoned for any offense, whether classified as petty, misdemeanor, or felony, unless he was represented by counsel at trial.”