A lawsuit filed Monday accuses Kern County officials of denying local residents their constitutional rights, including due process of law, by allowing probation officers to broker closed-door plea deals in misdemeanor criminal arraignments.
Filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and others on behalf of three county residents and the UFW Foundation, the suit in Kern County Superior Court alleges the system disproportionately harms people of color and those who don’t speak English fluently.
“Justice must be available to all and not a select few,” Ambar Tovar, directing attorney for the UFW Foundation, said during a morning news conference at which supporters held signs with statements like “#EndThePleaMill.”
Central to the allegations is a system more than 15 years old in which, according to lawyers involved in the filing, probation officers with no statutory authority to do so pressure defendants to plead guilty to crimes without proper consideration of the circumstances. They say judges then “rubber stamp” the pleadings, often to the detriment of defendants who might have made wiser decisions if they had been granted access to a lawyer.
The suit asks the court to end the system and make sure misdemeanor defendants — people facing criminal charges less serious than a felony, typically punishable by less than a year in jail — are guaranteed access to counsel. It also asks that all such proceedings take place publicly instead of during closed sessions.
Seven defendants are named in the complaint, including county government itself, the Kern County Superior Court and senior county officials. A county spokeswoman declined to comment on the suit, citing pending litigation.
The court issued a limited statement saying it received a letter from the ACLU threatening litigation April 3. It stated the court responded four days later asserting a lawsuit would be “premature and may prove to be entirely unnecessary” as it invited the civil liberties group to participate in helping incorporate “best practices” into the court’s misdemeanor arraignment process.
“A joint meeting was scheduled for May 19, 2023. But today the court was advised of the ACLU’s lawsuit,” the court said by email. “Accordingly, the court will review the complaint and refrain from commenting further on this pending litigation.”
The suit says more than 50,000 people in Kern pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges between 2015 and 2023 without consulting a lawyer.
It adds that fewer than 5 percent of misdemeanor defendants in Kern County Superior Court were represented by counsel at their arraignment, and that, in the past year, 60 percent of such defendants pleaded guilty.
ACLU attorneys said consequences can be harsh for poor or non-English-speaking defendants who, having pleaded guilty without the benefit of counsel, expose themselves to jail time or significant fines, face the loss of housing or child custody, risk increased penalties in future interactions with the criminal justice system, or suffer setbacks including deportation in the case of people in immigration proceedings.
Staff attorney Mayra Joachin with the ACLU of Southern California said the U.S. Constitution’s requirement that people have an attorney by their side when facing legal proceedings doesn’t always seem to apply in Kern.
“They have no lawyer,” she told an audience of dozens at the Liberty Bell. “No one advises them of the serious consequences of pleading guilty.”
As stated in the lawsuit, misdemeanor defendants are shown an inaccurate video prior to the public portion of their arraignment. It says the video is outdated in that it tells defendants they may need to pay attorneys fees, likely totaling hundreds of dollars, if they exercise their right to counsel. But in fact, the suit notes, the state Legislature enacted a law in 2021 barring counties from charging indigent defendants for the cost of defense counsel.
What the county’s process fails to do, the suit says, is advise defendants about potentially serious risks of pleading guilty. It adds that probation officers who offer pleas represent them as the best deal the defendants are likely to receive, even though the arrangements are inconsistent with offers conveyed by prosecutors in comparable cases.
Defendants who take such offers must sign waiver forms dense in legal jargon that many readers won’t understand, the suit alleges. It says many such cases are resolved based on evidence that does not provide a sufficient legal basis to support a conviction.
In that way, the suit says, county officials have “delegated the determination of misdemeanor pleas to untrained and unauthorized probation officers without any standardized procedure or written guidance.”
The misdemeanor plea system was expanded last year when variations of it were applied to at least four of the county’s outlying courthouses, according to the lawsuit, which adds that recent improvements such as having a public defender appear more frequently at arraignments was insufficient to fix what the suit called systemic problems. It notes representatives of the county District Attorney’s Office also are “effectively absent” from plea negotiations at misdemeanor arraignments.
One of the plaintiffs, Laura Hart, who experiences poverty and sometimes lives on the street, said she was living with mental health problems when in September 2021 she pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of possessing drug paraphernalia. Shortly afterward a separate court ruled she was incompetent to stand trial and needed treatment.
“Had I probably been able to talk with somebody, had somebody been available to me that was an advocate, I probably wouldn’t have pled guilty,” she said.
“Nobody came to say, maybe you should rethink this — tell me what the issue is. I never got that far,” Hart said. “They took my plea and I was out.”
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