State facing potential lawsuit over alleged violations of Utahns’ Sixth Amendment rights

Posted at 6:52 PM, Jan 01, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-01 20:52:24-05

SALT LAKE CITY – The state of Utah is staring down the barrel of a lawsuit over constitutional violations involving a citizen's right to a lawyer, but lawmakers hope they can avoid it.

“Utah is one of only two states, the other being Pennsylvania, that, for all intents and purposes, has washed its hands of the Sixth Amendment,” said Utah Senator Todd Weiler, R-District 23.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees your right to a lawyer if you can't afford one, but a pair of evaluations by the ACLU and the Sixth Amendment Center have found Utah has consistently failed to inform criminal defendants of their right to counsel.

“What the report found was the further away you move from Salt Lake County, the worse it gets,” Weiler said.

The reports found that in some cases, people facing charges weren't meeting their lawyers until they were in court. Lawyers may spend only minutes on the entire case. And, in some cases, justice court judges were negotiating plea deals and then sentencing people to jail time.

The ACLU has threatened to sue the state over it, and Weiler said that if lawmakers don’t take steps, the state is likely to lose that lawsuit.

“The ACLU's actually been quite patient, they've been waiting seven years for us to do something,” Weiler said. “We have the 2016 session, we have 45 days to figure this out. If we don't do it right, they'll sue us, and a federal judge will do it for us and I’d like to avoid that.”

In a statement to FOX 13, the ACLU said it remains to be seen if the problems will be fixed.

"The problems in our public defense system are very serious. If the violations aren’t fixed, litigation is likely. Half-measures aren’t sufficient when we are talking about Utahns' constitutional rights."

House Speaker Greg Hughes, a Republican representing District 51, said lawmakers will have to address the issue.

“It's time to revisit our indigent defense statute and make sure we're doing what we have always intended to do, and that is help those who need representation, competent representation, and making sure that happens,” he said.