Gideon Should Be Expanded
I recently read an article about the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright. For those not familiar, it is a Supreme Court decision that says that a person who is charged with a crime and faces a jail or prison sentence has a right to a lawyer, even if he can’t afford one. This decision gave rise to our Public Defender system. Prior to Gideon v. Wainwright, a person who could not afford his own lawyer on ly got a free lawyer in certain circumstances.
Prior to Gideon, many poor defendants were railroaded into convictions and imprisoned, even executed, without having any legal assistance. Now, if you are facing even one day in jail you are entitled to a public defender if you cannot afford your own lawyer.
As far as it goes, Gideon was a landmark and correct decision, and a great advancement in our legal system. The system, however, has found an oft-used bypass to Gideon. The prosecutor simply tells the judge that the government will not ask for jail time, and the judge tells the defendant that regardless of the outcome he will not impose any jail time. This leaves the defendant who cannot afford a lawyer to make legal decisions and even go to trial without a lawyer. It is wrong, just plain wrong.
The government spends a lot of money for police, investigators, and prosecutors. A person accused of a crime, even one where there is no possibility of going to jail (for this particular crime), is completely out gunned and out spent. Even a minor crime can have consequences far beyond some jail time, but these are seldom told to the defendant and often even unknown to the prosecutor or judge. A couple examples:
Some misdemeanors become felonies if there are prior convictions for the same offense. This is routinely told to a defendant who is pleading guilty, but often only then. He has not had enough time to consider this impact and factor it into his decision whether to go to trial.
A DUI conviction can keep you from being allowed into a foreign country. Canada can and does exclude even tourists who have a DUI conviction. In most states, a first offense DUI does not require jail time, and therefore does not require a lawyer be appointed. Has anyone heard of a DUI defendant being told of this consequence?
I am sure I could come up with more collateral consequences to a “minor” criminal conviction. As I see it, any criminal charge should entitle a person to a lawyer even if he cannot afford one. If the government wants to spend money on enforcement and prosecution, why should it not be required to spend some on the other side? Seems fair to me.