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ACLU sues state of Missouri, alleges high caseloads in public defenders' office unconstitutional

Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated at 10:30 a.m. March 9 with comments from Michael Barrett — A new lawsuit alleges the state of Missouri routinely violates the rights of people who need public defenders because of those attorneys’ large caseloads.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed a class-action lawsuit Thursday alleging that public defenders cannot pay enough attention to their clients, who have been charged with crimes ranging from stealing to murder. That, the ACLU claims, violates the state and federal constitutions.

"Every year in Missouri, tens of thousands of people are pushed through the system without having an attorney who has the time and resources to be able to provide them a defense," ACLU of Missouri legal director Tony Rothert said. "The American Bar Association puts out standards on how long should be spend on a criminal defense case, and the public defender system fails to meet that standards 97 percent of the time. It's not just a case here and there."

Complaints about the state’s troubled public defender office aren't new. Studies dating back to 1993 show attorneys are handling too many cases. But the ACLU delayed filing a lawsuit until now because there seemed to be no efforts toward improvement, which Rothert says is “just untenable.”

Missouri's chief public defender, Michael Barrett (right), appears before the House Budget Committee on Monday, Feb. 27, 2071.
Credit File photo | Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri's chief public defender, Michael Barrett (right), appears before the House Budget Committee on Monday, Feb. 27, 2017.

In an email to St. Louis Public Radio, Michael Barrett, the head of the Missouri Public Defender System, said it is time for the state to show some leadership around the issue.

"I've done everything short of setting myself on fire to draw attention to the situation that the state has put us in," Barrett said. "Poor persons in this state, including poor children, are being pushed through the criminal justice system, fined excessively and deprived of their liberty, without receiving the benefit of an attorney who has the necessary time to look into their case.

"Despite their claims of support for liberty and against big government, the state has chosen to neglect an indigent defense system that ranks 49th in the U.S. while enthusiastically spending more than a $100 million in new money on incarcerating the very citizens who were deprived of their right to counsel," he said.

Last year, in an effort to call attention to the caseload issue, Barrett used what he argued was his authority under state law to appoint then-Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, to serve as an appointed attorney on a case in Cole County. A judge ruled that Barrett had overstepped, and Nixon didn't have to do it.

Just last week, Barrett asked lawmakers for 300 more attorneys and warned that without more state money, he would have to close offices — some of which represent death row inmates.


“Of course we need more lawyers, and we haven’t seen any. So before we get to the conversation of do you think we’ll get 331 lawyers, hey, how about 10? Ten would be neat," Barrett told St. Louis Public Radio after the hearing.

Barrett also requested $67 million in his budget for next fiscal year. But Republican Gov. Eric Greitens has proposed only $44 million for the system, which Barrett says works out to a cut compared to last year.

'Excessive workloads'

The common thread, according to the lawsuit, is the "excessive workloads" that "hamstring" Missouri State Public Defenders and leave them unable to represent clients at critical stages in their cases. Here are the five plaintiffs:

  • Shondel Church was arrested in 2016 and charged with misdemeanor theft for allegedly stealing a generator and tool box from his mother. The suit alleges Church had three public defenders and eventually pleaded guilty, even though his first public defender thought he could beat the charges. While in prison, the suit alleges, Church lost his job and his family lost their home.
  • Randall Dalton, who has both mental and physical disabilities, was charged in January with felony drug possession after police found a single pill of Valium on him while investigating an overdose at his Morgan County nursing home. Investigators later found that he had failed to register as a sex offender. The lawsuit alleges that Dalton's sister had to do the work of the public defender, who did not meet with Dalton until a month after his arrest.
  • Dorian Samuels was charged in 2016 with second-degree assault. The lawsuit alleges Samuels' original public defender met with him once and didn't do pretrial investigative work, which would have revealed that Samuels was drunk during his initial interview with police and therefore couldn’t have legally signed a waiver of his Miranda rights. The suit also claims a second public defender also did limited work on Samuels' behalf before resigning from the state.
  • Viola Bowman faces first-degree murder charges in connection with her husband’s 2015 death. The suit alleges she couldn’t get her initial $1 million bond reduced because her public defender couldn’t appear at a hearing.
  • Brian Richman faces a number of felony drug charges, and has been in jail since his June arrest because he cannot make bond. The suit alleges Richman's assigned public defender has n0t visited him in jail and has met with him briefly in public courtrooms, where confidentiality is not assured.

In addition to the named defendants, the ACLU sued on behalf of  all people who currently are or will be in the future represented by a public defender.
The system

Rothert said he knows Missouri’s public defenders don't want to be in violation of the U.S. and state constitutions. He added that he doesn't care what steps are taken to fix the public defender system — be it more funding, charging fewer people with crimes or other things.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.