CARSON CITY, Nev. — The American Civil Liberties Union has accused Nevada of routinely violating the constitutional rights of criminal defendants in 11 rural counties by failing to provide them with adequate legal representation when they cannot afford their own lawyers.
“For too many defendants in rural Nevada, the phrase ‘innocent until proven guilty’ doesn’t apply,” said Emma Andersson, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project.
The ACLU’s Nevada chapter filed a class-action suit in Carson District Court on Thursday naming the state and Gov. Brian Sandoval as defendants.
It alleges indigent defendants are being denied their right to due process under the state system that transfers the job of public defense to individual counties.
The suit says the state lacks adequate oversight of multiple rural counties and their system of contracting attorneys to represent the accused. Under that system, the contract lawyers receive de facto flat fees and have a financial incentive to provide as little legal assistance to their clients as possible, the ACLU said.
“Nevada is shirking its constitutional duty, leaving thousands of defendants at the mercy of failing county-run and county-funded systems,” said Franny Forsman, a private practice attorney in Las Vegas who served as a federal public defender in Nevada for more than 20 years.
Sandoval’s office will review the lawsuit but believes the state already has taken significant steps to try to improve the current system, his spokeswoman Mari St. Martin said Friday.
The ACLU has filed similar lawsuits in Idaho, Missouri, Utah, California, Washington, Pennsylvania and Louisiana.
Nevada’s current system requires counties with populations above 100,000, such as Washoe and Clark, to have a county public defense office. The rural counties cited in the complaint are White Pine, Douglas, Mineral, Nye, Esmeralda, Churchill, Pershing, Eureka, Lander, Lincoln and Lyon.
Amy Rose, ACLU Nevada’s legal director, said many of the contracted attorneys have private practices, large caseloads and are more likely to devote time to cases that pay more money. She said they are also more likely to put pressure on public defendants to plead guilty.
Rose said the ACLU realized the scope of the problem in 2008 and since has advocated for a system overhaul.
“The state of Nevada has known for a decade that its rural public defense system doesn’t do its job, resulting in injustice after injustice. Yet the state has failed to fix it,” she said.
St. Martin said Sandoval has previously worked in collaboration with the Supreme Court, the Legislature “and other advocacy groups on this issue.”
Among other things, he signed into law this year a measure creating a rural judicial district, St. Martin said.
“This provides greater access to justice for many living in rural communities.” she said in an email.
Sandoval also signed a measure that allows rural defendants to transfer to urban jurisdictions the purposes of utilizing specialty courts, such as drug court or mental health court, and another which created an Indigent Defense Commission, St. Martin said.
“The commission will look at the caseload and workload of defense counsel, minimum standards for legal representation of indigent defendants, and how to fund a statewide indigent defense system,” she said.