Suit filed against Allen County over public defender system

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) — A second county in Indiana is facing a federal lawsuit claiming that its public defender system violates indigent defendants’ rights to adequate legal defense.

The lawsuit against Allen County was filed Thursday in federal court on behalf of Calvin Wilson, who was charged with battery on July 6. It comes about three months after a similar lawsuit was filed against Johnson County on behalf of a group of criminal defendants who claim they’ve received inadequate representation and felt pressured to plead guilty.

The suit against Allen County, which seeks class-action status, says Wilson was given a court-appointed attorney when charged, but didn’t meet him until two weeks later after a hearing. Wilson and his attorney have had only brief interactions since, all of them happening in hearings, according to the lawsuit.

David Frank, a private attorney representing Wilson, said impoverished people charged with misdemeanors are often left without “legal advocacy.” He said many defendants meet their attorneys briefly in court and are almost immediately told to plead guilty to receive a more lenient sentence.

The problem, Frank said, isn’t with the attorneys themselves but rather Allen County’s system that leaves public defenders with excessive caseloads. The county contracts private attorneys to serve as part-time and full-time public defenders, and those working part time make $8,000 to $24,000 annually regardless of their number of cases or time spent on them.

Court records show three, sometimes four, part-time public defenders take on more than 1,500 misdemeanor cases a year. One part-time public defender sometimes takes quadruple the maximum number of cases allowed by state standards, court records say.

“I’m not here to fault the attorneys or even the chief public defender,” Frank told The Indianapolis Star. “The problem is that the system is broken, that it’s set up to fail poor people charged with crimes.”

The Allen County Board of Commissioners declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

Wilson’s criminal case is scheduled for trial in March.

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