You Have the Right to an Attorney… FAIL!

By BitcoDavid

Constitutional Amendments 101
Constitutional Amendments 101 (Photo credit: Village Square)

Back in 1963, the SCOTUS ruled that you have a right to an attorney regardless of your ability to pay for one. The ruling was unanimous – one of the few unanimous rulings in the history of the Court. That’s how important the Justices viewed this particular Constitutional right. A half a century later, judges, lawyers, advocates and poverty level inmates all agree, that right is seldom secured.

Any courtroom activity other than a felony is exempt from the ruling, so poor people often go into court for Civil proceedings, such as lawsuits, evictions, family and custody disputes, and small claims cases, without the protection of legal counsel. The results can be disastrous. Cases exist, of abusive parents being granted custody, the elderly being evicted from rent-controlled apartments and individuals being dragged into court by large corporations for billing disputes.

hi, you are my public defender for a shoplifti...
hi, you are my public defender for a shoplifting case (Photo credit: ellesmelle)

During the recent bank foreclosure debacle, many families lost their homes when they shouldn’t have, due to the fact that they couldn’t afford representation. Your bank is attempting a fraudulent and illegal foreclosure, and they get away with it because they have huge legal staffs, but you’re eating cat food and can’t afford a lawyer.

The government created and funds an organization, the Legal Services Corporation.

They exist to provide legal services to people below the poverty line, in civil litigation. According to them, some 60 million Americans qualify for their services, but 80% of them never actually make use of the service. American trial judges were surveyed, and they – overwhelmingly – stated that they are seeing more and more cases of individuals acting as their own attorneys. These people are shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to courtroom procedures. They don’t understand how to present evidence, how to interview witnesses or how to submit documents. The machine rolls over them like an army tank, and they don’t have a clue as to what to do about it.

Percent and number below the poverty threshold...
Percent and number below the poverty threshold for the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even in felony cases, the poor can suffer from a lack of representation. For example, a court appointed attorney – public defender – isn’t assigned until your case actually goes to trial. You don’t get even that paltry defense during the arraignment. Bail gets set, and you don’t have anybody to step up and ask the court to waive bail. You go to jail where you sit and wait – sometimes months – for a trial.

In this age of wrongful convictions, hyper-punishment, the school to prison pipeline and the creation of huge and powerless criminal class, it is essential that we do all we can to insure that everyone receives all the Constitutional protections due them, regardless of race, creed or net worth.

To learn more, check out these 2 links from the New York Times.

Right to Lawyer Can Be Empty Promise for Poor, and Needed in New York: Better Legal Defense for the Poor


BitcoDavid is a blogger and a blog site consultant. In former lives, he was an audio engineer, a videographer, a teacher – even a cab driver. He is an avid health and fitness enthusiast and a Pro/Am boxer. He has spent years working with diet and exercise to combat obesity and obesity related illness.

4 thoughts on “You Have the Right to an Attorney… FAIL!

  1. David, the reason the “your right to an attorney” is in a criminal case (and for misdemeanors too) because of the liberty issue. The other court times are non liberty issues. Your freedom taken away is more precious than a house, so to speak. That was its purpose when Miranda was passed. Yes, it has been violated in certain settings like interrogation but never in a court trial will a defendant who is poor and cannot afford an attorney be allowed to proceed unless this person knows he has given up his right and demands to go through his trial without being represented. Even then, a public defender (most likely) will be assigned to be available when needed. As a paralegal in criminal law, I needed to clarify this point. Pat


  2. I appreciate that, Pat. I did say that one gets a PD at one’s trial, but not at one’s arraignment. That’s part of the problem. Even if a lawyer is available, there are cases where the individual couldn’t make bail. Those people end up “serving time” even though they haven’t actually been convicted of anything yet. As you know, it can be months between arraignment and trial, and if you’re in on a bailable offense, and you can’t pay – well, you know where I’m going here.

    While I agree that your liberty is more important than your house, injustice is still injustice. If an elderly man who lived in a rent controlled apartment for 50 years can suddenly be made homeless due to the lack of legal representation, than that’s still injustice. It may be legal, but that doesn’t make it right.

    That being said, thanks as always for commenting, and for all you do.


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