Category Archives: Criminal Law

Jason Bryant Statement on Recent Coverage Regarding Lillelid Murders

In the weeks leading up to a scheduled hearing on her petition for resentencing, Ms. Karen Howell—one of the co-defendants who pleaded guilty to the Lillelid murders—along with her co-defendant, Ms. Natasha Cornett, released a pair of lengthy, self-serving statements that several media outlets have since published unedited and without verification.  The Greene County District Attorney’s Office and its agents have since responded to those statements with statements to the media of their own.

Jason Bryant, the then-14-year-old child who has also filed a petition for resentencing on account of his being a juvenile at the time of his offense, has not sought to comment publicly on the case.  However, in response to the recent, prejudicial coverage relating to his upcoming proceedings, Daniel Horwitz, lead counsel for Jason Bryant, has released the following statement on Mr. Bryant’s behalf:

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My heart breaks for the Lillelid family, which suffered what can only be described as a horrific and unspeakable tragedy.  It is, however, highly inappropriate for Karen Howell, Natasha Cornett, the Greene County District Attorney’s Office, or any other party involved in this case to attempt to litigate disputed legal issues through the media.  Those attempts have seriously prejudiced Jason Bryant’s right to a fair proceeding, and they will likely necessitate a change of venue when his hearing takes place.

Although Rule 3.6(a) of the Rules of Professional Conduct strongly counsels against public comment in cases like this, Rule 3.6(c) includes an exception permitting attorneys to make public statements when it becomes necessary to correct a misimpression in the public record due to “the substantial undue prejudicial effect of recent publicity not initiated by the lawyer or the lawyer’s client.”  Consequently, the purpose of this statement is to correct three such misimpressions.

First, Mr. Bryant did not shoot anyone, and no jury has ever determined that he did.

Second, former District Attorney General Berkeley Bell’s statement that “the co-defendants blamed the shooting on Bryant because he was the youngest of the group” is accurate, as is his statement that “Bryant wasn’t part of the group.”  In contrast, Karen Howell’s and Natasha Cornett’s self-serving statements assigning Jason Bryant the blame for the Lillelids’ murders are not.  When Jason Bryant’s adult co-defendants discovered that Mr. Bryant—who was the only outsider to the otherwise closely-knit group, and who was also the youngest member of the group by far—was actually a juvenile who had pretended to be significantly older than he was, one of his adult co-defendants instructed him that he had to take responsibility for the Lillelids’ slayings.  That individual then pointed a gun at Mr. Bryant, shot him in the hand, and threatened to kill him if he did not.  Mr. Bryant still has visible scars from this event where the bullet went through his hand and entered his leg.

Third, Mr. Bryant was threatened and coerced into joining the group plea bargain to life without the possibility of parole against his will and against his clear legal interests.  Jason Bryant was just a fourteen-year-old child at the time of the Lillelids’ murders, and thus, he was not eligible for the death penalty on account of his being a juvenile.  As such, Mr. Bryant gained nothing from accepting a group plea bargain to a life sentence without the possibility of parole, which served only to spare his adult co-defendants the death penalty.

It is our position that these facts and the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Eighth Amendment jurisprudence establishing that it is nearly categorically unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life without the possibility of parole entitle Mr. Bryant to a new sentencing hearing.  These issues, however, must be decided in a court of law, rather than in the court of public opinion.  Accordingly, this will be Mr. Bryant’s first and only public statement on this case.  We ask that the parties and the media respect the judicial process and refrain from further prejudicing Mr. Bryant’s right to a fair proceeding going forward.

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Grading Nashville Policymakers on Criminal Justice Reform: A Report Card

By Daniel Horwitz:

As voters and thought leaders of all political stripes move toward consensus that the American experiment with mass incarceration has failed, bipartisan coalitions aimed at reforming the criminal justice system have emerged in cities and states across the nation.  The localized nature of this movement is hardly a surprise, given that – as the Washington Post has noted – “most criminal-justice policy happens at the state and local level.”  In addition to the fact that state and local prisons and jails account for the overwhelming majority of the incarcerated population, reform of any kind generally begins at lower levels of government before coming to pass in the (in)famously deliberate halls of the United States Congress.

Nashville, for its part, is no stranger to the influences of the criminal justice reform movement, as indicated by the recently-announced partnership on criminal justice reform between the ACLU, the Beacon Center, the Chamber of Commerce, and Goodwill Industries.  However, perhaps the most telling evidence that voters are beginning to demand sensible criminal justice policies is that policymakers have begun to campaign on them.  For example, in recent election cycles, Metro Councilmembers, the District Attorney, and the Mayor have all advanced platforms specifically dedicated to criminal justice reform in an attempt to curry favor with an eager electorate.  This report card attempts to grade these officials’ performances since taking office based on their campaign commitments.

1. The Metro Council:  C

Since Nashville’s 40-member Metro Council took office in 2015, few would argue that criminal justice reform has been a centerpiece of its agenda.  A notable exception to that, however, was the Council’s successful and resoundingly popular push to help steer low-level marijuana offenders away from the criminal justice system. Rather than having marijuana users arrested and prosecuted, the first-of-its-kind bill, spearheaded by District 35 Council Member Dave Rosenberg, empowers law enforcement to issue offenders civil fines or require community service instead.  (Note: contrary to a a misguided opinion by the Attorney General’s office, police officers and prosecutors have always enjoyed discretion not to pursue charges at all, and the bill does not constrain law enforcement or conflict with still-applicable state law in any way.)  The Council’s discretionary decriminalization bill was also supplemented by laudable efforts to track officers’ use of their newfound discretion for the purpose of “prevent[ing] potential bias from playing out with the new law.”

All-in-all, however, Metro Council Members have largely devoted their attention elsewhere.  This reality is disappointing, since the consequences of criminal justice policy are absolutely devastating to those affected by it.  Additionally, voting to militarize the local police force through a supplemental purchase of $1 million in ballistic armor (drawn from a reserve fund) while appropriating a fraction of that amount to fund critical programs like Legal Aid represents a disappointing reflection of the city’s criminal justice priorities.

Individual Council Members who are due credit for taking the lead on criminal justice reform efforts and attempting to make them a priority include Dave Rosenberg (District 35), Freddie O’Connell (District 19), Fabian Bedne (District 31), and Bob Mendes (At-Large).  Overall, however, the Metro Council gets a C.

2.  The District Attorney:  B+

In 2014, Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk campaigned for office under the slogan that he knew “the difference between a bad person and a good kid in trouble.”  Since then, local media coverage of his tenure has largely been dominated by hiring and firing decisions, disputes about the ethics of a release-dismissal agreement and a pension arrangement, and other matters unrelated to substantive criminal justice policy.  Lost amid the coverage, however, has been any meaningful assessment of Funk’s substantive criminal justice reform efforts, which are significant.

As Nashville Scene criminal justice writer and Washington Post contributor Steven Hale has written, Funk represents “an example of a politician who actually kept the promises he made while rolling through the neighborhood during the campaign.”  Significantly, many of his promises were also specific and measurable.  To explore two examples, during his campaign, Funk detailed his views on driver’s license charges and Drug Free School Zone penalty enhancements – two critical issues affecting thousands of prosecutions – as follows:

  1. “Good public policy demands that all drivers are licensed. Everyone drives. When policy creates barriers to keeping a license, other problems are created. For one, unlicensed drivers don’t have insurance, and if a wreck happens, we want the at fault driver to have insurance. Another issue is safety of police officers who pull over a motorist. If that motorist is licensed, the officer knows who has been stopped and their history. For these reasons and others, we should be helping people obtain and keep driver’s licenses.
  1. “I will work with the legislature to tighten the language of the school zone law so that it protects schools and children without causing widespread incarceration beyond the substantial punishments already on the books for narcotics offenses. Assistant DAs will enforce the law but use prosecutorial discretion to seek fairness and justice.

After taking office, Funk immediately made good on both of these promises and several others, such as increasing diversity in the District Attorney’s office (the DA’s office is now several times more diverse than it has been at any point it its history).  He also took substantial heat for doing so.  With respect to (mostly) doing away with criminally prosecuting people who lack driver’s licenses, for example, Funk was harshly criticized by Nancy Amons of Channel 4 News for failing to seek jail time as a matter of course.  In response, this author (and others) vigorously defended the move as a laudable reform that keeps families together, saves money, and minimizes the consequences of a law that literally fabricates criminality, punishes poverty, and operates only a single step removed from a debtor’s prison.

Funk also implemented a top-down office policy of pursuing school zone enhancements only when drugs are actually sold to kids or on school property.  This little-noticed reform, too, carries enormous importance.  Because the overwhelming majority of Nashville qualifies as a “school zone,” and because the law applies broadly even to sales that take place between adults on the highway at 2:00AM during summer break, the law could technically apply to almost every drug sale, thereby dramatically increasing potential penalties for nearly all non-violent drug offenses.  Prior abuse of the school zone enhancement was used coercively to influence plea bargaining, and it resulted in many spectacularly long sentences for non-violent drug offenders who refused to plead guilty.  Significantly, the law also generated outrageous racial disparities.  For example, although white people are statistically more likely to deal drugs, nearly 90% of defendants who were punished with the school zone enhancement in Nashville were people of color, and many received decades-long sentences for first-time, non-violent drug offenses.  Funk’s reform on the use of the Drug Free School Zone enhancement eliminated the worst of these abuses overnight.

The overall culture of the DA’s office has also undergone a dramatic makeover during Funk’s administration, receiving commendations from a defense bar that was previously accustomed to walking into what often felt like a warzone.  Although some prosecutors definitely missed the memo, and although there’s certainly still room for improvement, speaking personally, the author and many others have also found the Funk administration as a whole to be accessible, reasonable, and not unduly committed to bringing the full force of the law down on anyone and everyone without reason.  Funk’s personal support for causes like improving expungement access and ensuring LGBT equality within the criminal justice system are similarly praiseworthy, though his prosecutors don’t always adhere to those views.  While the author would love to see movement on issues like bail reform and a wrongful conviction integrity unit going forward, to date, the District Attorney’s office receives a B+.

3.  The Mayor:  D-

If promises were policy, Mayor Barry would receive the A+ on criminal justice reform that she campaigned on.  From ending the criminalization of homelessness, to mandating police body cameras, to improving expungement access, to taking the lead on marijuana decriminalization, to rolling out Metro ID cards in order to facilitate successful re-entry, to “waking up every day and being able to make a difference in someone’s life” who is being crushed by the weight of an unfeeling criminal justice system, criminal justice reform advocates unquestionably had their candidate in Megan Barry.  Unfortunately, however, promises are not policy, and the reality has not come even close to matching the rhetoric.

On criminalizing homelessness, Mayor Barry’s administration began by declaring that it did not “anticipate the need for arrests or criminal citations” for homeless people living in a tent-city style encampment at Fort Negley.  Unfortunately, however, it quickly arrived at “not ruling out arrest as an option” for those same people, forcibly disbanding the homeless encampment thereafter, and then in fact arresting some of its occupants in the process.  More recently, the Mayor’s office has inexplicably defended the Nashville Downtown Partnership’s recently-exposed policy of purchasing one-way tickets to bus homeless people – many of whom have mental illness – to other cities in an effort to solve Nashville’s homelessness problems.  To say the least, anti-homelessness advocates are not thrilled.

On police body cameras, the Mayor went from vocally supporting them as “really important” during her campaign to growing conspicuously silent about their previously-recognized merits during her first year in office.  More recently, under mounting pressure, she has re-committed to funding a police body camera program in next year’s budget.  Given that the program has not yet come to fruition, however, to date, progress remains non-existent, meaning that video footage is not available following use-of-force incidents.   Meanwhile, the Mayor’s office did take the lead on ensuring that $1 million was appropriated from a reserve fund to purchase military-grade ballistic armor for the Metro Nashville Police Department.  When it comes to criminal justice policy, the Mayor’s reticence to challenge her police chief on almost any issue even when confronted with evidence of racially discriminatory policing has also caused activists to question whether the MNPD is the proverbial tail wagging the dog.  Thus, suffice it to say that those concerned about preventing excessive or unnecessary use of force by law enforcement are not thrilled, either.

On expungement access, the Mayor’s pledge of support was similarly full-throated: “No individual should be unfairly penalized simply because they didn’t have the time, resources, or understanding of the law to have a charge expunged from their record,” she proclaimed.  In practice, however, while both Memphis and Chattanooga have committed resources to facilitating expungement access, Barry’s administration has done little more than deploy its legal department to oppose expungement access at virtually every opportunity.  This pledge, too, has not reflected reality, and expungement advocates are livid.

On marijuana decriminalization, the Mayor’s previous support also retrenched to such an extent that she “avoided taking a specific position” while an actual bill to decriminalize marijuana was coming down the pipeline (she ultimately signed it).  The silence was unexpected and curious, and even at the time, right-leaning Sheriff Daron Hall mustered the political courage to support it.  Thereafter, even after the reform passed, as activists called on the Mayor to use the power of her office ensure that the measure was actually implemented by the Metro Police Department, her office described such demands as “Nixonian.”  In sum: drug policy reform advocates have not been unduly impressed with the Mayor, either.

Additionally, efforts to develop municipal ID cards have fallen by the wayside entirely, another forgotten promise of a candidate who made many to the criminal justice reform community.  Fortunately, though, there has at least been recent movement on this issue from the federal government.  Whether Metro ID cards will become a reality here in Nashville under Mayor Barry’s administration, however, is anyone’s guess.

Taken together, evaluating her first year in office, the Mayor’s tenure with respect to criminal justice policy has been a frustrating disappointment.  Her recent commitment that Nashville will not become a jurisdiction that leverages its police force to enforce federal immigration law serves as a rare but significant bright spot.  Overall, however, the Mayor gets a D-.

For the sake of all affected – a population that includes all taxpayers and hundreds of thousands of people (and their families) in Nashville alone – let us all hope that our policymakers commit to meaningful reform in 2017.

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Tennessean Op Ed: Right to counsel a fundamental constitutional right

By Daniel Horwitz:

Across the world, whether people who have been accused of committing crimes should have the right to an attorney is something of a disputed question.  Certainly, North Korean “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un, Turkish dictator Recep Erdogan, and any number of other modern fascists hold strong views on the matter.  In America, however, the answer to this question has long been settled by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which declares with unmistakable clarity that: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”

Given the fundamental importance of the right to counsel in our constitutional democracy, the Republican National Committee’s disgraceful charge that “America deserves better” than a vice president who has represented the criminally accused should be swiftly and forcefully repudiated by all. Continue reading Tennessean Op Ed: Right to counsel a fundamental constitutional right

Case Update: Memphis’s 48-Hour Investigative Hold Policy Heads to the Supreme Court

By Daniel Horwitz:

Case Update:  On August 30, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the State of Tennessee to file a response to the petition for writ of certiorari filed in this case by defendant Terry Norris.  The State’s response was filed on September 29th, and it is accessible here.  Mr. Norris’s petition for writ of certiorari was also featured as the “petition of the day” on SCOTUSblog last Friday.

Statistically speaking, the Supreme Court’s request for a response from the Tennessee Attorney General raises the likelihood that the court will accept this case for review from approximately 1% to roughly 10%-20%.  If granted, Norris v. Lester will be one of the most significant cases to reach the U.S. Supreme Court out of Tennessee in recent history.

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Original Post:  Memphis’s 48-Hour Investigative Hold Policy Heads to the Supreme Court

In a recent petition for writ of certiorari filed with the United States Supreme Court, a Tennessee defendant represented by Kirkland & Ellis – a white shoe law firm based in Washington, D.C. – has presented a direct challenge to the Memphis Police Department’s once-pervasive “48-hour hold” policy.  The defendant’s cert. petition draws heavily on legal scholarship published by this author and by University of Memphis Law Professor Steven Mulroy in 2015 and 2013, respectively.[1]  Both law review articles condemn as unconstitutional the practice of arresting suspects without a warrant and intentionally delaying their right to a hearing before a judge so that law enforcement can use the delay to gather additional incriminating evidence.

Until recently, such 48-hour investigative holds were utilized regularly throughout Shelby County, with some estimates indicating that they were carried out approximately 1,000 times per year.[2]  As a general rule, suspects who were subjected to the Memphis Police Department’s “hold” policy would be arrested without a warrant on suspicion of having committed a crime, and they would then be interrogated by law enforcement for the next 48 hours.  If additional incriminating evidence was discovered in the interim, then the individual would be brought in front of a magistrate for a “Gerstein hearing”: a constitutionally required proceeding in which a judge or magistrate reviews the legitimacy of a warrantless arrest to ensure that the arresting officers had probable cause to make it.  If additional incriminating evidence was not discovered, however, then the officers would typically let the suspect go.

The primary problem with such a practice, however, is that it violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable seizures.  In the 1991 case County of Riverside v. McLaughlin, 500 U.S. 44, 56 (1991), the U.S. Supreme Court made clear beyond any doubt that intentionally delaying a suspect’s Gerstein hearing “for the purpose of gathering additional evidence to justify the arrest” is unconstitutional.  Notwithstanding this unambiguous declaration, however, some courts – including the Tennessee Supreme Court – have repeatedly turned a blind eye toward law enforcement’s illicit use of “investigative holds” so long as it was ultimately determined that the arresting officers had probable cause to make the arrest in the first place.  However, as this author details in his (award-winning!)[3] 2015 Memphis Law Review article: The First 48: Ending the Use of Categorically Unconstitutional Investigative Holds in Violation of County of Riverside v. McLaughlin, this holding is in error for five separate reasons:

First, this conclusion confounds the essential distinction between a judicial determination of probable cause, which is a constitutional right, and a probable cause determination made by law enforcement, which carries no constitutional significance.  Second, it violates the “administrative purpose” requirement initially established by the Supreme Court in Gerstein and subsequently reaffirmed in McLaughlin, which permits law enforcement to delay a warrantless arrestee’s Gerstein hearing for administratively necessary reasons only.  Third, this conclusion fails to grasp the crucial distinction between, on the one hand, delaying a warrantless arrestee’s Gerstein hearing for investigative reasons, and on the other, continuing an investigation while the administrative steps leading up to a warrantless arrestee’s Gerstein hearing are simultaneously being completed.  Fourth, such a holding renders McLaughlin‘s express prohibition on “delays for the purpose of gathering additional evidence to justify [an] arrest” superfluous, because all arrests that are unsupported by probable cause are already prohibited by the Fourth Amendment.  Fifth, by introducing hindsight bias into probable cause determinations and by allowing a substantial number of warrantless arrests to evade judicial review of any kind, this holding substantially diminishes the value of the check on law enforcement that Gerstein was meant to provide.[4]

This is the second year in a row that investigative holds have reached the steps of the Supreme Court, with a similar petition for writ of certiorari having been filed by two veteran Supreme Court litigators last Spring.  There is also an existing (and growing) Circuit split on the issue, which significantly raises the likelihood that the pending petition will be granted.  Given the vanishingly small number of cases accepted by the Supreme Court each term, however, and given that the Court is currently short-staffed as a consequence of the U.S. Senate’s unprecedented refusal to hold confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, the likelihood of any individual cert. petition being accepted for review remains minuscule.

Questions about this article?  Email Daniel Horwitz at daniel.a.horwitz@gmail.com.

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[1] Daniel A. Horwitz, The First 48: Ending the, Use of Categorically Unconstitutional Investigative Holds in Violation of County of Riverside v. McLaughlin, 45 U. Mem. L. Rev. 519 (2015), available at https://works.bepress.com/daniel_horwitz/3/; Steven J. Mulroy, “Hold” On: The Remarkably Resilient, Constitutionally Dubious 48-Hour Hold, 63 Case W. Res. L. Rev. 815 (2013).

[2] Horwitz, supra at 529 (citing Mulroy, supra, at 846).

[3] The First 48 was selected as a “must-read” publication by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ “Getting Scholarship into Court Project” and featured in the June 2015 edition of The Champion magazine.

[4] Horwitz, supra, at 522–23 (citations omitted).

Making a Mess: The Indigent Defense Crisis Undermining the Criminal Justice System Throughout Tennessee

By Daniel Horwitz:

This Sunday evening, veteran Wisconsin defense attorneys Dean Strang and Jerry Buting – the trial lawyers who became overnight sensations following the release of the award-winning Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer” – arrived in Nashville to talk criminal justice reform.  The wide-ranging discussion – billed as “A Conversation on Justice” – touched upon several aspects of America’s poorly-functioning criminal justice system from juvenile interrogation to legal ethics.  Most prominently featured, however, was a plea to improve the sorry state of indigent defense in the United States.

“If we are going to keep putting as many people in prison as we do now,” Strang told the sold-out TPAC auditorium, “then we are at least entitled to a reliable determination of guilt.”  (The United States has roughly 5% of the world’s population, but nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners.)  Buting concurred.  Compensated at just $40 per hour, “Wisconsin’s appointed criminal defense attorneys are the lowest-paid lawyers in the entire country,” he claimed.  For context, Strang added that “it costs me eighty dollars per hour to keep my law firm’s lights on.”

As moderator Stacey Barchenger – who covers the courts and criminal justice beat for The Tennessean – intimated in response, the state of indigent defense in Tennessee is not much better.  In fact, for several reasons, it’s considerably worse.  And the consequences for society – wrongful convictions and a two-track justice system for the rich and poor – are deplorable.

As any casual observer of American crime drama knows, (almost) everyone in the United States who is accused of committing a crime has the right to an attorney.[1]  Additionally, if a person cannot afford an attorney (and more than 80% of defendants fall into this category), then an attorney will be provided at taxpayer expense.  Whether a defendant receives a public defender (a lawyer who is employed full time by the government to represent poor defendants) or an appointed attorney (who is typically, but not always, a solo practitioner) depends on a variety of factors including geography, prior criminal history, and whether there is more than one defendant involved in a particular case.  Although different in several important ways, the pressures facing public defenders and appointed counsel due to inadequate funding – as well as the consequences of those pressures on poor defendants – frequently overlap.

The right to counsel in state criminal cases – guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and incorporated against the states via the Fourteenth – traces back to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1963 decision in Gideon v. Wainright.[2]  Subsequently, the Supreme Court further established that the right to counsel was not merely intended to provide criminal defendants with the euphemistic “warm body with a law degree.”   Instead, the Sixth Amendment is supposed to guarantee the accused a right to “the effective assistance” of counsel as well.[3]

“In practice,” however, “for a variety of reasons, the impact of Gideon has never come anywhere close to reaching its aspirational goals.”  See Daniel A. Horwitz, Actually, Padilla Does Apply to Undocumented Defendants, 19 Harvard Latino L. Rev. __, n. 41 (forthcoming 2016), available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2757799.  Although multifaceted, the main reason why the right to competent counsel has remained so illusory for indigent defendants more than fifty years after Gideon is simple: the American public just isn’t willing to pay for it.  Dollar for dollar, taxpayers would prefer to spend their money on virtually anything in the world before paying for free attorneys for poor people who have been accused of committing crimes.  Accordingly, the funding that has been appropriated for indigent defense has never even approached the amount that is actually necessary to afford poor people a meaningful opportunity to defend themselves.

The solutions to this problem, however, are somewhat more complex.  Given the profound unpopularity of criminal defendants – and given that poor people cannot afford to hire lobbyists and generally do not have a receptive audience in most (if any) state legislatures – adequate funding for indigent defense is never likely to come voluntarily.  Instead, courts must embrace their role as enforcers of constitutional rights and either order legislatures to appropriate sufficient funding for indigent defense or refuse to allow prosecutions to go forward until such funding has been provided.  Public Defenders – many of whom handle hundreds of cases at a time – must also begin pushing back against courts that tolerate inadequate funding by refusing to take on caseloads that exceed ethical standards.  And when both legislatures and courts fail to meet their obligations, advocates need to sue them.  Frustratingly, although reformers do achieve the occasional victory in this regard, successes are usually short-lived, and they are always a long time coming.

For its part, though, Tennessee’s nearly wholesale abdication of its responsibility to ensure that poor defendants receive effective representation provides a fantastic case study on how to run an indigent defense system in a way that virtually guarantees it will fail.  Although funded by the General Assembly, the compensation rate for appointed counsel in Tennessee is set by the Tennessee Supreme Court.  Specifically, Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 13 provides that “[t]he hourly rate for appointed counsel in non-capital cases shall not exceed forty dollars ($40) per hour for time reasonably spent in trial preparation and fifty dollars ($50) per hour for time reasonably spent in court.”  This rate has also been unchanged since 1994, meaning that appointed lawyers for poor defendants are typically the lowest paid professionals in the courtroom.  (In contrast, Tennessee’s judges are paid rather handsomely; based on a just-published survey of judicial salaries conducted by the National Center on State Courts, salaries of Tennessee Supreme Court Justices currently rank twelfth-best in the nation, while salaries for judges who sit on lower appellate courts and in trial courts rank ninth.)

There are several obvious problems with Tennessee’s appointed counsel compensation arrangement that are worth highlighting.

First, there is no justifiable basis for compensating “time reasonably spent in trial preparation” less than “time reasonably spent in court.”[4]  Trial preparation – including meeting with defendants, interviewing witnesses, preparing pre-trial motions, conducting legal research, investigating mitigating circumstances, filing discovery requests, and any number of other activities that are essential to effective trial advocacy – are every bit as important as time physically spent in court.[5]  Longstanding U.S. Supreme Court precedent also supports this reality.  As far back as 1932, for example, the Supreme Court observed that a criminal defendant “requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him” – not merely at trial – and that “[w]ithout it, though he be not guilty, [a defendant] faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence.”[6]

Even so, Tennessee remains one of six states in the United States to pay a reduced hourly rate for trial preparation.[7]  And because lawyers respond to financial incentives much like other humans, that disparity creates an economic incentive to maximize time spent in court and minimize time spent out of court.  For example, when New York’s disparate compensation scheme – $40 per hour for in-court work and $25 per hour for out-of-court work – was struck down as unconstitutional back in 2003, the reviewing court did so in part on the basis that “[t]he lower rate paid for out-of-court time, in particular, operates as a substantial disincentive to perform” many of the pre-trial tasks that are essential to a defendant’s representation.[8]

A second problem is that Tennessee’s appointed counsel compensation rate – a maximum of $50 per hour – is far too low.  To the minimum wage worker or the service employee making just a fraction of that per hour, that assertion likely strikes a nerve.  But factoring in the fact that the “rate of compensation does not take into account the various overhead costs associated with the practice of law, which include the costs of reference materials, office equipment, rent, travel, malpractice insurance and, for most young attorneys, student loans” – not to mention payroll expenses for office staff – the picture becomes a great deal less rosy.[9]  For example, a 2008 survey found that the average annual overhead cost of running a small law firm was $160,000 per lawyer, which roughly translates to overhead expenses of $80 per hour assuming 2,000 billed hours per year.[10]  Accordingly, as Strang himself lamented: “I’m subsidizing the State of Wisconsin’s prosecution of my own clients to the tune of forty dollars an hour every time I take an appointed case.”

Compared with private counsel – whose standard hourly rates (summarized here by the Laffey Matrix) are often 10 to 20 times higher than Tennessee’s appointed compensation rates – this disparity becomes especially pronounced.  But even confined to the universe of appointed criminal defense work, Tennessee’s compensation rate lags substantially behind other jurisdictions.  For example, Alabama pays its appointed criminal defense attorneys $70 per hour.  Arkansas pays them $50-$90 per hour.  South Dakota musters $84.  And compensation rates for non-capital federal cases – which are funded separately by the Federal Criminal Justice Act – currently stand at $129 per hour.  In fact, on a national scale, Tennessee’s appointed attorneys are arguably paid the second-lowest effective rate in the entire country.[11]  Add in the fact that non-attorney staff members in the Administrative Office of the Courts occasionally deduct appointed attorneys’ bills on the basis that they spent too long on a given task, it’s no wonder that Tennessee’s appointed compensation scheme is held in such universal disregard by those involved in it.

Third, and most egregiously, Tennessee’s compensation rates are capped at set maximums.  With few exceptions, attorney compensation is limited to $1,000 for misdemeanors and $1,500 for felonies.  The result of such caps is that after attorneys have spent approximately twenty to thirty hours on a given case, they immediately begin losing money.  Thus, if an attorney is to make a decent living taking appointed cases, then the only feasible way to do so is to maximize the number of cases cleared before a case’s compensation limit has been reached—a strategy that is not-so-fondly referred to as “meet ‘em and plead ‘em.”  It also goes without saying that given the seriousness and complexity of criminal cases – not to mention the severity of their potential consequences – many clients’ cases cannot reasonably be concluded in thirty hours.  Especially under circumstances when a client is innocent and wants to go to trial, criminal cases can and often do take years to complete.

Predictably, this capped compensation arrangement can introduce deeply troubling and profoundly perverse incentives into an indigent defendant’s representation.  By placing enormous financial pressure on attorneys to conclude cases immediately once they have reached the maximum compensation limit (usually via a plea bargain), the caps create a serious conflict of interest between attorneys and their clients that probably violates Rule of Professional Responsibility 1.7(2) (“a lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation involves a concurrent conflict of interest. A concurrent conflict of interest exists if: . . . there is a significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited . . . by a personal interest of the lawyer.”).  As a consequence, indigent defendants all-too-often do not get the zealous advocacy and effective representation to which they are supposed to be constitutionally entitled.

The results of such idiosyncrasies – (1) disparate pay between in-court and out-of-court work; (2) low compensation rates; and (3) per-case caps on compensation – are measurably terrible for criminal defendants.  The rate of wrongful convictions even in death penalty cases is conservatively estimated to be about 4.1%.  This estimate is even more horrifying given that multiple exceptions (such as higher compensation rates, lifted compensation caps, and dual appointments of attorneys who are required to have significant trial experience) are routinely permitted when the death penalty is at stake.  Accordingly, one might reasonably expect that the wrongful conviction rate for less serious criminal cases is significantly higher.

On a broad scale, extensive evidence also indicates that “those with publicly funded counsel are [both] more likely to be convicted than those with privately paid attorneys” and more likely to receive longer sentences.[12]  Clients represented by salaried public defenders (who – although similarly underfunded – at least have “steady salaries, financial and institutional independence”) also enjoy measurably better outcomes than clients represented by appointed attorneys, who regularly experience the perverse incentives described above.[13]  Accordingly, like the rest of the country, Tennessee boasts a two-track justice system that is definitely not based exclusively on determining guilt versus innocence.  Instead, it has one justice system for the rich, and another for the poor.

Happily (potentially), the Tennessee Supreme Court has recently launched an Indigent Representation Task Force with the supposed goal of fixing these problems.  It is not clear, however, what this task force expects to discover.  When the results are ultimately announced, nobody will be surprised to learn that Tennessee’s decision to fund indigent defense at very nearly the lowest rate in the nation results in terrible outcomes for poor people.  Even if the task force decides to recommend changes to Tennessee’s compensation system, the recommendations are most likely to track those that were previously advanced by the Tennessee Bar Association and other interested organizations back in 2004.  The notion that any of the problems being considered during the Task Force’s “listening tour” are new or unknown, however, is farcical.  The topic of indigent defense is well understood, and it has been studied extensively both locally and nationally on too many occasions to count.

If Tennessee is serious about fixing its indigent defense system – and for now, there is no real indication that it is – then the solutions are simple but politically unpopular.  At a minimum, Tennessee’s compensation rates need to double, the compensation caps need to be lifted, and the disparity between in-court and out-of-court work needs to be done away with for good.  Public Defenders’ offices also need to be funded at a rate that permits attorneys to keep their caseloads below defined national standards.  Whether any of these reforms will actually be put into effect, however, only time will tell.  Until then, poor defendants in Tennessee will continue to serve as data points in a human trial aimed at determining how to provide the least effective criminal representation possible, and sadly, almost nobody will care.

Questions about this article?  Email Daniel Horwitz at daniel.a.horwitz@gmail.com.

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[1] Contrary to popular belief, everyone accused of a crime does not actually have the right to attorney.  Instead, the right to counsel attaches only when a defendant is charged with a felony, see Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), or when actual incarceration is imposed.  See Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25, 37 (1972); Scott v. Illinois, 440 U.S. 367, 373–74 (1979) (“the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution require only that no indigent criminal defendant be sentenced to a term of imprisonment unless the State has afforded him the right to assistance of appointed counsel in his defense.”) (emphasis added).  Thus, accused misdemeanants can and often do go unrepresented, resulting in significant collateral consequences that the justice system has never adequately addressed.

[2] Gideon, 372 U.S. 335.

[3]  Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984) (“the proper standard for attorney performance is that of reasonably effective assistance.”).

[4] See generally, John P. Gross, Gideon at 50: A Three-Part Examination of Indigent Defense in America, Part I 12-13, Indigent Defense Counsel of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (March 2013), https://www.nacdl.org/reports/gideonat50/rationingjustice/.

[5] Id.

[6] Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45, 69 (1932).

[7] Gross, supra, at 12.

[8] New York Cty. Lawyers’ Ass’n v. State, 763 N.Y.S.2d 397, 407 (Sup. Ct. 2003).

[9] Gross, supra, at 8.

[10] Id. at 16 (citing Altman Weil, Survey of Law Firm Economics: Trend Comparison of Overhead Expenses (2003)).

[11] Wisconsin and Oregon respectively compensate their attorneys at $40 per hour and $45 per hour independent of what work is being performed, but unlike Tennessee, neither state imposes maximum compensation limits, which have the consequence of reducing the effective compensation rate realized.  See Gross, supra, at 29 & 32.  However, attorneys in Cook County, Illinois receive $40 per hour in court and $30 per hour out of court, with maximum compensation caps even lower than Tennessee.  Id. at 22.  Some jurisdictions have flat fee rates or higher hourly rates but lower compensation caps, however, making cross-jurisdictional comparisons somewhat difficult.  Id. at 20-32.

[12] Erwin Chemerinsky, The Case Against the Supreme Court 147 (2014).

[13] James M. Anderson & Paul Heaton, How Much Difference Does the Lawyer Make? The Effect of Defense Counsel on Murder Case Outcomes, 122 Yale L.J. 154, 188 (2012).