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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Tuesday, July 5, 2005

St. Louis PD Ends Meet 'Em, Greet 'Em and Plead 'Em Practice

From STLToday.com:  "The St. Louis public defender's office - the last legal hope for those too poor to afford their own lawyer - will, for the first time in at least 20 years, refuse to represent certain people in court starting Tuesday, state officials said last week.  Those people are on the misdemeanor confined docket, which means they've been arrested on misdemeanor charges, or are named on the assessed docket because they've been arrested for failing to pay fines or court costs.  State and local representatives of the public defender's office say they're making the move because it's unethical and unprofessional to try to represent defendants with only minutes to familiarize themselves with the cases.  J. Marty Robinson, director of the Missouri State Public Defender system, calls it "meet 'em and greet 'em and plead 'em."  "I'm just flabbergasted that there are people that think this is OK," he said.  Robinson said many people were probably misled into thinking they had a lawyer, but public defenders were simply "filling out the court's paperwork."  Public defenders also say that under recently revised state laws, guilty pleas to two of certain misdemeanors can lead to a felony charge and serious prison time for the third offense, along the lines of state three-strikes laws. That could mean defendants who plead guilty to minor crimes to stay out of jail are unknowingly increasing their chance of greater future penalties.  "Our representation on that docket was unethical, unprofessional and unconstitutional, and innocent and vulnerable people were being hurt," said St. Louis District Defender Eric Affholter. "And that's why we made our decision to participate differently on that docket."  The move is threatening to fill local jails and to clog courtrooms. Presiding Circuit Judge John Riley said he was going to tell city officials last week that city jails could be seeing more inmates for longer periods.  It also is angering judges. In legal paperwork filed late Friday, the public defender's office said one assistant public defender had been told by sheriff's deputies they had been ordered to arrest her and her colleagues if they didn't show up to interview clients at 9 a.m. Tuesday. But sheriff's spokesman Mike Guzy said Friday afternoon that he wasn't aware of any order to arrest public defenders.  The judges reportedly are striking back in other ways, including in ways public defenders say will punish those too poor to afford their own attorneys.  According to affidavits signed by Affholter and Assistant District Defender Laura O'Sullivan and filed Friday, Circuit Judge Michael Mullen called O'Sullivan and told her that he was changing policies in his courtroom in response to the public defender's move set for Tuesday. Mullen said he would no longer allow public defenders to postpone trials, would go with prosecutors' recommended sentences over public defenders' recommendations and would no longer reschedule hearings to avoid conflicts with the public defenders' schedules.  "When one arm of the criminal justice system flexes its muscle, the others must respond," Mullen told the public defender's office staff, according to Affholter. Mullen was on vacation last week and could not be reached for comment."  Story . . .  [Mark Godsey, via Pamela Metzger]

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