ACLU Sues Over Failing Public Defense System in Fresno County

Tens of Thousands Go Without the Legal Representation the Constitution Guarantees

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, and the law firm Paul Hastings LLP filed a lawsuit against Fresno County and the State of California, seeking an overhaul of the county’s deficient public defense system. Because public defenders do not receive the resources necessary to represent their clients, thousands of Fresno County residents are forced to navigate the criminal justice system without the adequate legal representation that is guaranteed by the Constitution.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of plaintiff Peter Yepez, a Fresno County resident who experienced firsthand the staggering deficiencies of the public defense system. Yepez pled no-contest to a crime despite strong evidence that he was innocent; his plea form does not even note the factual basis for the plea because there was none.

The public defender did not have time to interview Yepez until almost a year after he was detained in jail. He was shuffled through nine public defenders, who told him they had no time to work on his case and advised him to plead guilty to the burglary and stolen property charges against him. Due to multiple delays from the Public Defender’s Office, Yepez missed the memorial service for his son.

Midway through his case, the prosecution accused him of enhanced charges; despite there being no evidence to back up this new allegation, the public defender failed to oppose it, and no one discussed what this new allegation meant to Yepez’s case.

“Getting a fair trial should not depend on how much money you have in the bank,” said Novella Coleman, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “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 presumption of innocence is the keystone of our criminal justice system, and it is profoundly compromised for the most vulnerable defendants when the public defense system is failing,” said Emma Andersson, staff attorney at the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “Crushing caseloads and paltry resources have made it impossible for Fresno County public defenders to do their job. The state and the county must step up to their Sixth Amendment responsibility. They must fix the county’s public defender system so that it can properly serve its critical purpose: providing each client with a rigorous legal defense.”

Public defenders represent more than 25,000 people each year in Fresno County, with each attorney shouldering up to four times the recommended number of clients. The lawyers have so little time with their clients that they often cannot discuss the circumstances surrounding the person’s arrest or whether evidence exists that could be used in their defense. Many immigrants—who make up 22% 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.

The public defense system’s failure also perpetuates racial inequalities in the criminal justice system. “Because of racial profiling, people of color are more likely to be targeted for arrest and prosecution,” said Coleman. “The severe underfunding of the public defender’s office, which serves many people of color, is just another manifestation of the racial bias inherent at every stage of our criminal justice system—from the moment of arrest, to charging decisions, to bail determinations, to selection of jury members, and to verdicts and sentencing.” While people of color make up roughly 57% of Fresno County’s population, they represent more than 69% of all arrests in the county.

As detailed in the complaint, 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 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.” Even the Fresno County District Attorney has decried the public defense system’s lack of funding, saying it bogs down the entire justice system.

Public defense is a state duty, but California has handed over all responsibility to the counties, providing no oversight and little funding. “We are asking the County of Fresno to create and maintain a strong, well-resourced public defense system that assures every defendant his or her constitutional right to a fair trial,” said Coleman. “Equally important, we are asking the State of California to fulfill its responsibility to ensure that public defense systems in the state measure up to what the Constitution requires.”

The Community Alliance asked longtime activist and self-proclaimed “court watcher” Gloria Hernandez what her thoughts were on this and this is what she had to say, “Without an adequate number of public defenders, many potentially innocent people will take a plea thus enslaving them under the jurisdiction of law enforcement from correctional officers, to probation, to law enforcement officers for the rest of their lives. Job opportunities, student loans and safe housing and many other opportunities snatched away.”


For the complaint and more information about the case: www.aclunc.org/phillips

For more information about the ACLU of Northern California: www.aclunc.org/issue/criminal-justice-and-drug-policy

For more information about the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project: www.aclu.org/issues/criminal-law-reform

For more information about Paul Hastings LLP: www.paulhastings.com/

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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