Tuesday, November 17, 2009

More proof of a broken "Justice System"

Connecticut

DEFENDANTS’ RIGHTS
Are Low-Income Defendants Being Misinformed By Court System?


By EDMUND H. MAHONY The Hartford Courant

November 17, 2009


An arrest three years ago in the case of a missing wallet has resulted in the unusual demand by a federal appeals court that Connecticut justify the way criminal defendants are presented in the crowded, lowest tier of the state's criminal court system.

The order by the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals grew out of the appeal from a federal lawsuit in Hartford. That suit alleges that low-income defendants in criminal cases are routinely denied the right to be arraigned by a judge and the right to be informed that they could be eligible for free legal representation.

State officials were preparing a response to the circuit court but said Monday that the court's demand might be based on a misunderstanding of procedure in the busy state court system. The officials said that defendants, on their initial court appearances, are permitted to forgo formal arraignment and arrange informal continuations of their cases to avoid waiting in court all day and missing work.

"We are aware of the request and we are looking into the situation and providing the court with an answer," said Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane. "It appears to be a misunderstanding of the way business is handled in high-volume courts where continuances are given informally as a convenience to the public."

The case arises from the arrest in Torrington on Thanksgiving in 2006 of Fortunato Garcia, a Dominican immigrant charged with sixth-degree larceny, a misdemeanor, for allegedly stealing a wallet lost by a police officer. Garcia was charged even though he says he made repeated efforts to return the wallet.

Garcia, through his lawyer, Gabriel North Seymour of Falls Village, claims in the suit that the violation of his rights took place after he was ordered to appear to answer the charge at Superior Court in Bantam. In court, the suit says, Garcia was denied his right to appear before a judge and enter a plea and was not informed in court that he was entitled to representation by a public defender.

Rather, the suit says, Garcia was directed to a meeting with an assistant prosecutor. The prosecutor told Garcia that the state intended to prosecute the larceny charge and would continue the case to a later date. Garcia left court, according to the suit. In his absence, court officials entered a not guilty plea in his behalf and ordered the case continued.

There is disagreement about whether Garcia was told he could apply for representation by a public defender. It appears, at a minimum, that he was advised to hire a lawyer.

Garcia did not reappear in court on the date to which his case was continued. A warrant was issued for his arrest on the charge of failure to appear in court.

Eventually, the criminal charges against Garcia were dismissed, but he sued a variety of law enforcement and judicial officials over the alleged violations of his rights at the time of arraignment. Garcia claimed in the suit that he and other low-income defendants in criminal cases are systematically denied the right to a complete arraignment before a judge.

U.S. District Judge Robert N. Chatigny dismissed the suit against state prosecutors, claiming that they are immunized against such suits as officers of the court. The prosecutors were defended by the office of state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

A three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit issued a brief summary order Thursday upholding Chatigny's dismissal but expressing concern about what it called Blumenthal's failure to address the suit's claims that low-income defendants such as Garcia are routinely denied the right to proper arraignment in court.

"Notwithstanding the foregoing rulings, this Court is disturbed by the allegations of prosecutorial conduct at issue and by the State of Connecticut's ostensible refusal in its brief and at oral argument to admit that were those allegations true, the practices would be, if not unconstitutional, likely illegal and certainly improper," the appellate court wrote.

"Accordingly, we order the Attorney General of the State of Connecticut, within 30 days of this Order, to provide this Court with a detailed report discussing what steps have been taken to address the practice of the State's Attorney at the Connecticut Superior Court in Bantam, CT, and what steps are being taken to ensure that they will not continue in the future."

Blumenthal said he will prepare the report for the 2nd Circuit.

"My office is seeking information from the Chief State's Attorney's Office and the Bantam Superior Court regarding the Bantam court's criminal procedures," Blumenthal said. "Together, we will address the federal Appeals Court's questions and concerns regarding those procedures."

Copyright © 2009, The Hartford Courant

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