published on February 19, 2016 - 9:48 PM
Written by The Business Journal Staff
Attorneys representing Fresno County and the State of California will be in court in early March asking a judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union alleging thousands of county residents go without adequate legal representation guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

The suit, filed in July 2015 in Fresno County Superior Court, seeks an overhaul of the county’s “deficient public defense system.”

The ACLU of Northern California, the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project and Los Angeles-based law firm Paul Hastings LLP filed the lawsuit, which also names Governor Jerry Brown and the State of California as co-defendants.

The March 10 court proceeding, called a demurrer hearing, will be held at Fresno’s Sisk Courthouse before Judge Mark Snauffer. The hearing was originally scheduled for Feb. 10 but was postponed on the eve of the court date.

“These hearings are very common but we do not believe Fresno County has a good reason to ask the judge to dismiss this case,” said Leslie Fulbright, a communications strategist with the ACLU.

In a nutshell, the suit alleges the Fresno County Public Defenders Office is understaffed and overworked. Elizabeth Diaz, who now runs the department, replaced longtime Public Defender Kenneth Taniguchi in 2014 after the lawyers in the office told the Board of Supervisors that they had lost confidence in his leadership following a number of years of budget cutbacks.

Fresno County’s chief lawyer, County Counsel Dan Cederborg, said he was optimistic the ACLU suit would be dismissed.

“We are anticipating a favorable result for the County at the hearing,” Cederborg said. “But demurrers are sometimes difficult to win completely.”

The lawsuit alleges that many immigrants, who make up 22 percent of the county’s population, are encouraged to plead guilty without being told how that can affect their immigration status, even though the U.S. Supreme Court held in 2010 that this violates the Constitution.  

“For at least six years, the Fresno County Public Defender’s Office has been in a state of crisis, disabled from fulfilling this constitutional duty,” the suit states. “Beginning in August 2008, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors initiated a series of devastating cuts to the Public Defender’s budget, resulting in the loss of more than half the Office’s staff by the end of the 2011-2012 fiscal year.”

“In January 2009,” the complaint also states, “the Public Defender alerted the Board that recent cuts to the Office’s budget severely limited the Office’s ability ‘to provide competent and effective representation on each case’ and ‘to staff or service all of the various courtrooms and calendars within Fresno County.’”

According to Cederborg, the Fresno County Public Defenders Office currently has 67 full-time attorneys.

Twenty-two attorneys currently work in the county counsel office, which represents Fresno County in all civil legal matters.

In recent years, budget cuts have forced that office to cut staff too, but Cederborg said the recent economic upturn allowed him to add 17 positions in 2014 and two more in 2015.

Novella Coleman, the ACLU attorney who will be arguing the case, said 67 public defenders for a county the size of Fresno just isn’t enough.

“Getting a fair trial should not depend on how much money you have in the bank,” Coleman added. “But in Fresno County, if you can’t pay for a private attorney, you must rely on a public defense system unequipped to meet even basic legal needs.”

The lawsuit, known as Phillips v. State of California, was originally filed on behalf of plaintiff Peter Yepez, a Fresno County resident who, the ACLU claims, was not interviewed by a public defender about the facts of his case until he had spent almost a year in jail.

While incarcerated, Yepez had nine different public defenders and missed the memorial service of his son, according to the ACLU suit.

“Crushing caseloads and paltry resources have made it impossible for Fresno County public defenders to do their job,” said Emma Andersson, staff attorney at the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project.

The ACLU claims public defenders represent more than 25,000 people each year in Fresno County, with each attorney shouldering up to four times the recommended caseload.

County public defenders, the suit alleges, have so little time with their clients that they often cannot even discuss the circumstances surrounding the person’s arrest or whether evidence exists that could be used in their defense.

The complaint states that six years have passed since the head of the Public Defender’s Office alerted the Fresno County Board of Supervisors that the office was severely limited in its ability to provide “competent and effective representation.”

And two more years have passed since the union from the Public Defender’s Office warned that public defenders are jeopardizing their clients’ constitutional rights “on a daily basis.”

Following next month’s hearing, if the county and state’s motions to dismiss are denied, the case will proceed to the discovery phase. If Judge Snauffer does dismiss the case, Fulbright said the ACLU has yet to decide whether or not it will appeal.

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