published on April 13, 2016 - 1:18 AM
Written by The Business Journal Staff

A Fresno Superior Court judge has decided that a lawsuit targeting alleged deficiencies in Fresno County’s public defender system can continue.

On Tuesday, during a court proceeding called a demurrer hearing, Superior Court Judge Mark W. Snauffer ruled that the suit, which names both the State of California and Fresno County as defendants and was filed by the ACLU of Northern California, the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project and international law firm Paul Hastings LLP, can move forward.

The suit accuses the Fresno County public defender’s office of violating multiple defendants’ right to counsel, due process and a speedy trial under the U.S. and California Constitutions.

“Fresno’s flawed and underfunded public defense system is in a state of crisis, and this ruling confirms the state remains accountable for the problem, despite having delegated responsibility to the county,” ACLU of Northern California staff attorney Novella Coleman said after the hearing yesterday.

“The county’s public defenders don’t have the resources or time to fulfill their clients’ Sixth Amendment rights,” Coleman added. “Getting a fair trial shouldn’t depend on how much money you have in the bank.”

But Dan Cederborg, Fresno County county counsel, said that just because the judge allowed the suit to proceed, “this does not mean any of the allegations in the Plantiffs’ complaint are actually true.”

“It is easy to make bombastic statements to the press,” Cederborg added. “It is another thing entirely to back them up in court with evidence. This will now be a long litigation process costing the public a substantial amount of resources to defend and causing serious distractions to the dedicated employees of the Public Defender’s Office who go above and beyond what is required by them legally and ethically defending their indigent client.”

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.

A story about the lawsuit appeared in the Feb. 19 issue of The Business Journal.

Coleman and the ACLU believe that for several years now, thousands of Fresno County residents have had public defenders “in name only, attorneys who are too over-burdened and under-resourced, leaving clients without the necessary legal assistance at critical points in their cases.”

“Defendants have suffered unnecessary jail time and been pressured to plead guilty without any investigation of the facts of the cases,” said Leslie Fulbright, a communications strategist for the ACLU of Northern California.

Fulbright cited “systemic deficiencies in Fresno’s public defender system [that] further add to the unfair racial inequalities that plague our nation’s criminal justice system. In Fresno,” Fulbright stated in a press release issued after Tuesday’s ruling, “the flawed system has had a disproportionate impact on the county’s immigrants, who make up 22 percent of the population. And though people of color make up about 57 percent of Fresno County’s population, they represent more than 69 percent of arrests in the county.”

“In this time of racial profiling, over-policing and mass incarceration, people of color face one injustice after another,” Coleman added. “The right to an attorney is a bedrock principle of our justice system and Fresno’s overburdened public defense system is leading to deeply unfair results and contributing to wasteful jail and prison systems.”

The next court date in the case has been scheduled for later this year.

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