74°F
weather icon Clear

ACLU sues Nevada over indigent defense in rural counties, including Nye, Esmeralda

Updated January 3, 2018 - 5:30 pm

A civil rights organization filed a class-action lawsuit against the state of Nevada, alleging systemic failures in its public representation of defendants who cannot afford lawyers.

The complaint, filed on Nov. 2 in Carson City District Court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, accuses the state and Gov. Brian Sandoval of neglecting their constitutional responsibilities to provide sufficient indigent defense in rural counties.

The rural counties cited in the complaint are Nye, Esmeralda, White Pine, Douglas, Mineral, Churchill, Pershing, Eureka, Lander, Lincoln and Lyon.

According to the complaint, the state lacks oversight of multiple rural counties and their system of contracting attorneys to represent the accused. The ACLU asked the court to require Nevada to modify its systems to comply with constitutional protections.

“Although these problems are occurring at the county level, ultimately, the state has the responsibility to fix this,” ACLU legal director Amy Rose said in an interview Nov. 1.

Sandoval spokeswoman Mari St. Martin said the governor’s office will review the complaint.

“The filing of a lawsuit is disappointing, as the Office of the Governor had previously worked in collaboration with the Supreme Court, the Legislature and other advocacy groups on this issue,” she said in an email Thursday. “Governor Sandoval had taken significant steps to improve rural indigent defense including signing into law a measure which created a rural judicial district. This provides greater access to justice for many living in rural communities.”

Nye response

In addition, the Pahrump Valley Times left messages with Nye and Esmeralda County governments.

“Many rural counties suffer from the lack of assistance in providing indigent defense services for those charged with crimes within their jurisdictions,” Nye County spokesman Arnold Knightly said.

“Nevada is one of the few states in the country where this responsibility has been put almost entirely on the counties, and Nevada’s rural counties have long sought assistance in delivering this essential service,” he said. “Bills in three of the past four legislative sessions to address this issue through additional funding mechanisms or policy changes have not made it through.”

The Pahrump Valley Times was awaiting a response this week from Esmeralda County.

Nevada counties

Several counties use a system where contracted attorneys are paid regardless of the defense they provide.

With a flat fee, Rose said, the lawyers pay for more expenses out of pocket. She said this is particularly true in Nevada’s rural areas, where travel costs over large counties come into play.

Rose said this and several other factors discourage the lawyers from providing a proper defense to people who cannot otherwise pay for legal representation. She said many of the contracted attorneys have private practices and, with a large caseload on their hands, are more likely to devote time to cases where they will get paid more.

The complaint alleges that Nevada’s policies violate the right to a meaningful defense, protected by the Sixth Amendment and the Nevada Constitution, as well as due process rights recognized in the 14th Amendment.

“They are entitled to a meaningful defense, and they’re not getting that,” Rose said.

Time for action

Rose cited one of the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit, Diane Davis of Pahrump. When Davis could no longer afford her lawyer, the same lawyer was appointed to represent her in her arson and identity theft cases.

The lawsuit claims the attorney initially planned to help her fight the charges, but when he was appointed as her public defender, he pressured her to take a plea deal.

Other appointed lawyers applied similar pressure to others in her situation, according to the complaint.

“As a public defender with a large caseload, I have to prioritize,” Davis’ current attorney recently said at a court hearing, according to the lawsuit. “Her case is important to me, yes, but so are all of my other clients’ cases.”

Nevada’s current system requires counties with populations above 100,000, such as Washoe and Clark, to have a county public defense office.

Rose said the ACLU realized the scope of the problem in 2008 and since has advocated for a system overhaul.

“This isn’t a new issue,” she said.

She said the state has been made aware of the problems in its system but has failed to show it was going to fix them.

The group most recently supported Senate Bill 377, a bill that, in its original form, would have addressed many of the issues raised in the organization’s lawsuit, she said. The final version of the bill created a commission to study Nevada’s indigent defense issues. The bill was signed into law by Sandoval this summer.

But Rose said the time for studying is over.

“We’ve looked at this problem for about a decade, and now it’s time to do something about it,” she said.

‘They mean well’

A Boston-based constitutional rights group, Sixth Amendment Center, previously has studied Nevada’s disparity in resources available to its rural defendants versus those in Clark and Washoe counties. It highlighted many of the same issues addressed in the recent complaint.

The 2013 report, “Reclaiming Justice,” documents a steady erosion of Sixth Amendment protections within Nevada. State government has no oversight over the way the counties handle their public defense system, the report said, adding that there were no standards the counties had to meet to ensure attorneys hired could adequately provide indigent defense.

David Carroll, the organization’s executive director, said the limited number of resources available to rural Nevada counties makes it harder for them to delegate the appropriate time and care needed for criminal defense cases.

Carroll said Nevada is one of a handful of states that puts the onus of paying for defense on the counties. The rural counties do not have the population to generate the tax revenue needed to fund sufficient public defense. He said in many cases, the states most in need of better indigent defense are the ones that cannot afford it. He doesn’t blame the counties and said he thinks “they mean well.”

“The best they can isn’t what the Constitution calls for,” he said.

Contact Mike Shoro at mshoro@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5290. Follow @mike_shoro on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
THE LATEST
Pahrump’s Laraine Babbitt crowned queen

Grace, elegance and poise were on full display as the five lovely ladies competing in the 2019 Ms. Senior Golden Years USA Pageant took to the stage before hundreds of avid attendees inside the Saddle West Showroom.

Pahrump Animal Shelter services contract decision set for Tuesday

The current contract for operation of the Pahrump Animal Shelter is almost at an end and the Nye County Commission must make the decision as to which organization the new contract will be awarded to.

Pahrump Valley Times refreshes its website

The website of the Pahrump Valley Times — pvtimes.com — features a refreshed look unveiled this week.

California Lottery

No one matched all five numbers and the mega number in the Wednesday, June 12 drawing of the California Super Lotto. The next jackpot will be at least $53 million.

Flag Day ceremony in Pahrump honoring veterans

Nathan Adelson Hospice announced it will be holding a special “We Honor Veterans” pinning ceremony today, June 14 in Pahrump to coincide with Flag Day.

Yucca Mountain back on television

In a made-for-TV visit to the proposed burial site for the nation’s nuclear waste in Nye County, Nevada’s senior senator vows to block efforts to restart licensing process.

Air ambulance company responds to Pahrump transport cost concerns

The director of communications and government affairs of Air Methods, the parent company of Pahrump’s Mercy Air, has issued a response regarding the circumstances of a Pahrump resident who was billed more than $50,000 for an air ambulance flight from Pahrump to a Las Vegas medical facility.

1 transported to UMC Trauma after Nevada Highway 160 crash

Crews from Pahrump Valley Fire and Rescue Services responded to what was described as a suspicious vehicle fire on Saturday, June 8 at approximately 9:41 p.m.