In the Defense of Effective Assistance for Indigent Defendants in Florida
In the last year, the Florida Supreme Court has redefined the understanding of what effective advocacy means with regards to indigent defendants. The Florida Supreme Court recently decided that public defenders, who are overwhelmed by excessive caseloads, may be permitted to withdraw if they can show that the excessive workload would hinder their ability to effectively represent their clients.
The Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel
All criminal defendants are guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the right to effective representation by an attorney. The Sixth Amendment requires that defendants, no matter their socioeconomic background, are provided with counsel who can advocate on the defendants’ behalves. According to Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure, effective assistance must be provided at all crucial stages of prosecution and indigent defendants must be appointed counsel once they have been formally changed with the offense or, if possible, at the time the defendant was custodially restrained (arrested or interrogated by police). Indigent defendants generally are appointed a public defender as early as is feasible; however, the system currently in place is underfunded, there is a deficit in hired attorneys, and the public defenders practicing are overloaded with cases.
The Dangers of Public Defenders Strained by Excessive Caseloads
The dangers of excessive workloads and caseloads create a circumstance where attorneys are unable to provide their clients with the utmost care, preparation, and attention that every defendant should be due. Details and minutiae are easily forgotten when an attorney is also attempting to remember the facts and circumstances of 49 other defendants for that week. Overloaded attorneys are not in a position to fully and adequately investigate and research the defendant’s case, interview clients, take depositions, and advise clients with regards to their pleas.
An inability to provide these services adequately is in direct violation of an indigent defendant’s right to effective representation and assistance under the Sixth Amendment. At times, indigent defendants find themselves without counsel for a significant amount of time between arraignment and trial. To balance out the workloads, the more serious felonies are provided with more resources while defendants charged with less serious felonies are left with limited assistance.
Interpretation of a Florida State Law Barring Withdrawal
The constitutionality of a Florida state law was at the center of the dispute; the law excluded “excessive caseload” from one of the possible grounds by which a public defender may withdraw from a case. Public defenders are notoriously overloaded with cases and it was averaged that the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Office of the Public Defender assigned roughly 400 cases per attorney more or less per year with an average of 50 cases of third degree felonies set for trial each week. These numbers are in direct conflict with the recommended 200 to 300 cases (or less) per year.
The Future of Florida’s Supreme Court Ruling
Though the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling has helped to redefine the meaning behind effective assistance, the use of “excessive caseload” as a grounds for withdrawal by public defenders will still need to be tempered with other solutions to the problems faced by underfunding and overloading attorneys. This could mean a greater increase in the budget attributed to public defenders and the corresponding influx of hired attorneys to help parcel out the caseload.
A Right to Effective Assistance is One Click Away
It is important that all defendants, regardless of their socioeconomic background, have access to effective assistance and experienced attorneys. Every defendant not only deserves, but has constitutional right to advocacy. Please feel free to contact Fort Lauderdale based Kevin J. Kulik for assistance and guidance with your case.