If You Ask for a Public Defender in One Texas County, You Get a Sheriff’s Detective Instead

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Local officials in Texas have decided it is more important to save tax dollars than provide a criminal suspect with a public defender.


Starting late last year, McLennan County decided to send a sheriff’s detective to the home of any person requesting a court-appointed lawyer. The purpose: to see if the individual was poor enough to not afford their own legal counsel, or determine if they were lying.


Officials stand by their decision to carry out the investigations, believing some residents were taking advantage of free legal help.


“I think this has been very, very helpful,” Cathy Edwards, McLennan’s indigent defense coordinator said at a public meeting of county commissioners, according to the Texas Tribune. “Last week, I had several people who just said, ‘I don’t want to deal with this, I don’t want to have to be bothered by the detectives—just throw my application away.’”


In fact, there has been a 40% reduction in requests for public defenders in McLennan County since its sheriff’s office began investigating indigence claims last November. But County Judge Scott Felton denied that such a pronounced drop indicates that the new country policy has had a chilling effect on citizens. Rather, he insisted, it is due to an understaffed department struggling to cope with an increased workload.


McLennan County Sheriff’s Deputy Matt Cawthon characterized the 40% drop as “crime prevention at its finest.”


Criminal defense advocates have been appalled by the county’s actions and the implications for Americans’ constitutional rights.


“It’s savings at the expense of defendants' rights,” Andrea Marsh, senior counsel at the nonprofit Texas Fair Defense Project, said. “Defendants are not pursuing counsel because they don’t want to let an investigator into their house.”


Marsh added that what McLennan is doing is essentially forcing people to give up one right (the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable searches) to secure another (the Sixth Amendment’s right to have a lawyer).


Texas does not consider legal aid for the poor a priority. It ranks near the bottom among all states in spending per-capita for indigent defense (based on 2008 figures compiled by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association).


Funding for public defenders in Texas comes out of county budgets, not the state treasury, which can lead to shortchanging this important assistance when local revenues are tight, advocates for the poor argue.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

In Waco, Checking on Defendants' Claims of Poverty (by Gilad Edelman, Texas Tribune)

McLennan County Indigent Defense Investigations Come Under Fire (by Olivia Messer, Waco Tribune)

In Most States, Defendants Must Pay for Public Defenders, Inmates for Room and Board and Offenders for Probation Expenses (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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