By written policy the Contra County Office of the Public Defender (PD) refrained from representing detained indigent criminal defendants (at both the felony and the misdemeanor level) during their first court appearance. Instead of making an attorney readily available to handle arraignment for defendants who tell the court they cannot afford to hire counsel, the Public Defender would have courts automatically postpone arraignment and refer the matter to the PD's Office. The postponements would be for an arbitrary period (typically between 5 and 13 days) that was neither connected to particular needs of the PD's Office nor mindful of the exigencies of the defendants' case. During that period defendants remained in jail, and this practice delayed entry of the plea and re-examination of bail or release on recognizance to the next court appearance.
On December 12, 2012, two defendants who had experienced this policy filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, via private counsel, against the Public Defender on their own behalf and on behalf of similarly situated criminal defendants, seeking nominal damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of their constitutional rights under the color of state law, damages under California's Civil Rights Act for denial of statutory speedy trial rights, a declaration of the illegality of the PD's Office's policy, and an injunction against the policy in accordance with their claims and to enforce California Government Code § 27706. They also sought attorneys' fees and punitive damages. The constitutional rights alleged to be violated were the 6th Amendment right to the assistance of counsel and the 14th Amendment right to due process with respect to statutory speedy trial rights (on procedural and substantive grounds) and with respect to application for bail or release on recognizance (on procedural grounds).
On May 8th, 2013, the Court (Judge Joseph C. Spero) granted the Public Defender's motion to dismiss but gave Plaintiffs leave to amend the complaint. The decision was based in part on failure to state a claim, in part on vagueness about the legal basis for certain details of the claims, and in part on a failure to allege enough facts (such as particular harm or prejudice in Plaintiff's criminal cases caused by the delay) to present a facially plausible rather than speculative claim to relief as required by the Supreme Court decisions in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly
and Ashcroft v. Iqbal
. Farrow v. Lipetzky
, 2013 WL 1915700 (N.D. Cal. 2013).
On May 13th, 2013, Plaintiffs filed an amended complaint, which was subsequently amended further. The most recent complaint (May 31st, 2013) proceeds on all the same charges as the original but presents further detail on the legal basis for the claims and alleges more particular facts regarding the effect of the delay on Plaintiffs, such as the addition of charges, exclusion of positive information from bail reports, and prevention of timely interviewing of witnesses.
At some point during the progression of this case the Public Defender changed her policy for indigent defendants detained on felony charges to allow for representation at the first appearance but has not changed the policy for misdemeanor defendants. The case was referred to a magistrate (Jacqueline Scott Corley) for settlement on April 29th, 2013, but not settlement has occurred.
As of this writing there have been no further motions or proceedings with respect to the amended complaint and the case is ongoing.Kenneth Gray - 06/12/2013