Public Defense Almost Non-Existent in Burlington, Mount Vernon, Claims Lawsuit

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If you're poor, you better hope you don't get arrested in Burlington or Mount Vernon. That's the takeaway from an eye-opening class action lawsuit that had oral arguments before federal judges yesterday.

The public defense system of those two cities, as described in the suit handled by the the ACLU of Washington and two private law firms, is beyond appalling. It practically doesn't exist.

Consider this: According to the briefs, the two attorneys used by the cities for public defense "have specifically stated" that they "do not meet in private with indigent defendants."

That would mean that the only time the attorneys talk to these clients is during rushed court proceedings. And even then, according to witnesses cited in the briefs, they get short shrift. "When I saw him in court, I only got a minute or two of his attention," said a defendant about Richard Sybrandy, one of the two public defenders.

Another defendant described Sybrandy as being utterly uninterested in her version of the facts. According to her, the attorney cut her off, saying that she was "not special" and "need [ed] to face what [she] did." He recommended she plead guilty. (Sybrandy has not yet returned a call from SW seeking comment.)

Such behavior, if true, is partially explained by the fact that Sybrandy and fellow public defender Morgan Witt are horribly overworked. Together, working on public defense only part-time, they represent up to 2,300 poor clients a year in municipal court. Washington State Bar guidelines call for public defenders to handle not more than 400 misdemeanor cases annually.

Sybrandy told The Seattle Times last year that he's been "frustrated to the point of tears" by his workload.

Yet Mount Vernon and Burlington aren't accepting any responsibility for this situation. Defense attorneys are obliged to "provide the best defense possible, regardless of who is paying or how busy they are. Thus, even if plaintiff were correct--and Sybrandy and Witt accepted a public defender contract that overburdened them--blame is not passed onto the cities."

Given the government's obligation to provide public defense, this seems like a dubious argument. And the courts have already shown themselves willing to enforce standards. A Kittitas County Superior Court Judge in 2005 came down hard on Grant County's public defense system, which similarly overburdened attorneys, leading to a settlement that required the county to reduce caseloads.

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