ACLU Files Suit Against Kern County For Operating a “Plea Mill”

Over eight years, more than 50,000 Kern defendants have pled guilty without lawyers at their first court appearance  

Special to the Vanguard

Bakersfield, CA – The ACLU and others this week filed a lawsuit today against Kern County and Kern County Superior Court for systematically denying poor misdemeanor defendants their constitutional rights to counsel and due process. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of UFW Foundation and three Kern County residents.

The lawsuit describes a fast-track plea mill where probation officers play a prosecutorial role well outside their statutory authority—making plea offers to poor defendants behind closed doors, typically without defense counsel or prosecutors present. Judges then accept these uncounseled pleas in arraignments that often last less than three minutes.

“When I appeared in Kern County Superior Court in 2021, I was at my lowest point. I was overwhelmed and confused, and I wasn’t getting the physical or mental care that I needed in jail,” said plaintiff Laura Hart, who entered an uncounseled guilty plea at her first court appearance. “When I pled guilty, there was no lawyer there to assist me or to advocate for me at a time when I couldn’t advocate for myself.”

Only weeks later, another judge in a different court deemed Ms. Hart not competent to stand trial.

“The rights to counsel and due process are fundamental pillars of our legal system,” said Emi MacLean, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Foundation of Northern California. “Kern County cannot continue to deny defendants their fundamental rights to save resources and ensure swift convictions.”

Fewer than 5% of misdemeanor defendants in Kern were represented by counsel at their arraignment. Yet roughly 60% of all defendants plead guilty at their first court appearance.

Certain groups of people are more vulnerable to the pressures of the plea mill. Black defendants enter uncounseled guilty pleas at a rate twice their share of the overall population of the county. Latine defendants and people who rely on interpreters were also more likely than white defendants to enter uncounseled guilty pleas.

“Immigrant defendants are among those routinely not afforded their constitutional right to counsel and coerced into accepting uncounseled pleas,” said Ambar Tovar, directing attorney of the UFW Foundation, a plaintiff in the case. “Our justice system is failing our immigrant community, contributing to the separation of families, and aggravating economic hardship. Justice must be available to all, and not a select few.”

Plaintiffs are asking the court to declare these practices unconstitutional and illegal, and to guarantee individual consultations with attorneys for all defendants at arraignment proceedings. The lawsuit also asks the court to prohibit Kern County from relying on probation officers to convey plea offers, and to ensure public access to these proceedings.

“Kern County’s misdemeanor arraignment plea mill causes devastating harm,” said Eduardo E. Santacana, partner of Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, co-counsel for the plaintiffs. “It’s not just the massive number of uncounseled convictions. In a matter of minutes, in hearings where defendants have no attorney by their side, noncitizens can lose key immigration protections, parents can jeopardize custody of their children, and people can lose their right to drive.”

Last year, a statewide expert group, California’s Committee on Revision of the Penal Code, recognized the problem of inadequate access to counsel at arraignments and recommended legislative reform. There is currently proposed legislation, AB 1209, which would require prompt legal representation before a first court appearance.

Read the complaint: https://www.aclusocal.org/sites/default/files/2023.05.08_filed_kern_misdemeanor_plea_mill_petition_and_complaint.pdf

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