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Have a Lawyer on Us!

Even out-of-town businessmen get free legal service in NC

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District Court Judge Phil Howerton prides himself on speed. To his credit, he is fast, so fast he shows up late to courtroom 1101 and leaves early. I sat in Howerton's courtroom two weeks ago and watched as he doled out tens of thousands of dollars in free legal services -- paid for by you and me -- without bothering to ask if any of the defendants were indigent.

In North Carolina, people who are indigent are entitled to free legal services, either from a public defender or private attorney paid for by the state. But the state has never defined who qualifies as indigent. (Both of the dictionaries I consulted used the adjectives "impoverished" and "destitute.") So, like Howerton, judges across the state just make up their own definitions.

Most of the defendants in Howerton's courtroom appeared on a television monitor with video piped in from the jail. "Public defender, public defender, public defender," the judge said as the men, most of whom were charged with minor crimes, filed past.

Many of the defendants never got a chance to stop moving. Others tried to speak but were pushed along by a sheriff's deputy. Occasionally the men would get out of order and Howerton would roar some insult at the frazzled deputy, demanding to know what was "wrong down there."

When the men were not in order, it was unclear exactly who Howerton was assigning public defenders to. But the judge didn't let such details slow him down. It was just, "Public defender, public defender, public defender."

Howerton defends the practice. "I'm always of the opinion that if someone has the money to hire a lawyer, they'd hire one," he said.

Hey, it should be pretty safe for a judge to assume that if 80 percent of the defendants appearing before him are Hispanic or African-American, and 100 percent of them look disheveled, they must be impoverished and destitute. Or is it?

Enter Exhibit A. His name is Ernest Salvi. He was on a flight to Charlotte in August when he had one drink too many and got a little rough with a flight attendant. He was arrested for assault at the airport and dragged to jail. At the arrest processing center, officers noted on his arrest form that he was employed in sales.

Enter Exhibit B. His name is Brett Buzek. He's also in sales. Buzek was on a business trip here when he was arrested for speeding and drunk driving.

Howerton's signature is stamped at the bottom of two counsel assignment forms attesting that both men were indigent and in need of a public defender. Yet somehow, despite their tragic inability to pay for a lawyer, the two men miraculously managed to scrape together enough funds to fly back to Charlotte for their hearings. In court, Salvi's public defender went so far as to tell the court his client had been "inconvenienced" by having to fly back for the hearing and was missing work. Does that sound indigent to you?

In other cases, Creative Loafing has found defendants who own homes or live in homes valued at $120,000 to more than $400,000, and have been assigned public defenders.

Officials at the state's office of indigent defense services are pretty casual about the whole thing. They've told me the state got rid its indigency screeners back in 1994, and that judges think things move along faster if they just appoint defendants free lawyers rather than ask a lot of questions.

This could explain why the state spends twice as much on indigent defense in Mecklenburg County as it does on the court system and overwhelmed prosecutors. Every year, as Mecklenburg County's courts fall further and further behind -- the county has fewer than half the prosecutors of places like Austin and Portland -- the indigent defense budget continues to balloon. Meanwhile, state politicians have a million excuses for why the courts can't get more funding, but they are unable to explain the rapid growth in the indigent defense budget.

I have a few theories. The North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers PAC is one of the top ten PAC donors to the state legislature, and its lawyers rake in millions in state dollars for defending the indigent as independent contractors. Naturally, more funding for indigent defense is one of the group's top legislative priorities. Last year, the PAC dumped $261,000 into state Democratic Party coffers and doled it out to legislative leaders, including $6,000 to Senate leader Marc Basnight. He recently declared that he had no plans to give beleaguered prosecutors more money until they increased their "efficiency."

Oddly enough, Basnight and friends don't seem worried about efficiency on the indigent defense side. Lawyers who work as contractors use an "honor system" when billing the state for the hours they've worked. In most cases, no one checks to see if the bill is even plausible for the kind of case the lawyer worked on.

In the past year, thanks to reporting by the Raleigh News & Observer, Durham lawyers have come under fire for the huge bills they've turned in, and financially stable defendants have been caught using public defenders.

It's time to turn over that rock here, and in courtrooms across the state, to see what crawls into the light.

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