ACLU To Sue SC Cities Over Lack of Lawyers

South Carolina cities don’t provide lawyers to many indigent defendants in minor cases. This leads many to serve jail terms at a great expense to taxpayers.

Larry Marsh, a homeless man in Sumter, S.C., has a history of mental illness and drug addiction. He has been arrested 270 times for trespassing and has served time in jail or prison. Never has he had a lawyer, despite Supreme Court rulings that anyone facing imprisonment is entitled to legal counsel, the New York Times reports. Recent reports detail a failure to provide lawyers in Nashville and Miami-Dade courts, and in 2015, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, held hearings on the issue.

In cases like Marsh’s, the Times says, “lack of legal assistance contributes to a senseless churn through the criminal justice system at great taxpayer expense.” Jailing Marsh costs the city $1,650 a month. The American Civil Liberties Union plans to file a federal class-action lawsuit on Thursday against the city of Beaufort and the town of Bluffton, saying they are violating defendants’ rights. They hope for a ruling that sets a statewide precedent that all jurisdictions must provide lawyers. Municipal courts, which handle traffic violations and other low-level crimes, are optional for South Carolina cities, which can choose to rely on state courts to hear the cases. The state’s 212 municipal courts collect $20 million a year in fines and fees. Last year there was nearly one municipal case for every nine adult residents.