Suspects Lacking Lawyers are freed in Atlanta

4th June, 2002
The New York Times
Sarah Rimer

In New York City and many other large cities across the country, the law requires that anyone arrested for a misdemeanor go before a judge, with a lawyer, within 24 or 48 hours.

In Atlanta, Tony Barlow, 45, was released on Thursday after 11 days in the Fulton County jail on charges of shoplifting two greeting cards from a supermarket and resisting arrest. During that time, Mr. Barlow, who was unable to make his $1,000 bond, did not see a lawyer and was not assigned a court date.

He was one of 69 poor people who had been unable to make bond on petty charges -- shoplifting, trespassing, fare evasion, public drunkenness -- who began to leave the jail on Thursday after days, weeks and, in some cases, more than a month of waiting for a lawyer and a court date. All of them had spent more time behind bars than they would have if convicted.

And they would have stayed in jail longer had the chief judge of the Fulton State Court, A. L. Thompson, not ordered them freed at the suggestion of a federal judge. Their release was a significant victory in a long, incremental battle in Georgia to provide lawyers for people who cannot afford them.

The United States Supreme Court held 30 years ago, in Argersinger v. Hamlin, that any person facing a loss of liberty was entitled to a lawyer. But in Atlanta lawyers are often not provided in minor cases until the defendant has spent more time in jail than the longest likely sentence for the offense.

Streaming out of the jail, the inmates clutched brown paper bags containing their few personal belongings, and the $1.75 bus tokens that jail officials had given them to get home. Some wore relieved smiles; many looked dazed. These are people who live on the margins, where things regularly go wrong.

Mr. Barlow, who said he had a job doing market research by telephone, said he had paid for the greeting cards that led to his arrest. According to the Atlanta police, Mr. Barlow had stolen the cards and had returned them for cash. When he failed to promptly turn over the money, the arresting officer put him in a wristlock.

Mr. Barlow tried to ''pull away,'' according to the police report, and the officer pushed him into the wall of the security office, creating a hole. The money for the cards was later returned to the store.

''I'm glad to have freedom,'' Mr. Barlow said Thursday as he boarded a bus in front of the jail.

Bernard Harvey, 35, who had been arrested for criminal trespassing and had spent 19 days in jail, said he had had a landscaping job. But he did not know if the job would be waiting for him. ''I've been locked up,'' he said. ''I don't know what's going on.''

Jamal Spencer, 25, had been jailed for nine days on a criminal trespassing charge. What was it like inside? ''Hot and sweaty,'' Mr. Spencer said. ''Fights every day.''

Judge Marvin H. Shoob of United States District Court has had jurisdiction over the jail since the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a class-action lawsuit against Fulton County two years ago focusing on overcrowding and other problems.

In April, Judge Shoob found that it was unconstitutional for people arrested on misdemeanor charges to be held without prompt access to lawyers. He ordered that they be provided with counsel within 72 hours of arrest.

Judge Shoob suggested Wednesday that Judge Thompson order the release of the inmates after two days of hearings during which the Southern Center presented a list of 187 people who had remained in the jail on misdemeanor charges well over 72 hours without seeing a lawyer or getting a court date. Of those, dozens had been in longer than a month. More than 130 of the 187 have now been released.

''These are people who haven't been convicted of anything,'' said Stephen B. Bright, the director of the Southern Center. ''It's like Alice in Wonderland. They do their time, and then they're brought to court. It is costing the county thousands of dollars to keep these people locked up. But, more importantly, it is ruining people's lives because they lose their job and often their home while in jail.''

County officials testified that they were doing everything possible to provide people with lawyers quickly, but said paperwork and bureaucracy -- in some cases inmates spend days in municipal jails before they even get to the county jail -- made it impossible to meet the judge's 72-hour deadline. The county has recently begun contracting with a public defender's agency to provide lawyers for poor people charged with misdemeanors.

Kimberly Morgan, 32, who was arrested on April 29 for criminal trespassing at a local motel, was one of several inmates who testified at the hearings. Ms. Morgan had been staying at the motel and had paid for two weeks in advance. But after three nights, she said, she decided she did not want to stay the second week. She asked for a refund.

The motel refused, and called the police when Ms. Morgan would not leave. She was arrested for criminal trespassing and jailed.

Ms. Morgan accepted a plea bargain but was sent back to jail because of a bureaucratic mix-up. On May 28, when she testified in federal court, she still did not know when she would be back in state court. Meanwhile, she had lost her $1,500-a-month restaurant job.

Ms. Morgan was released on Friday.
''When I first came out that door, just the air, the fresh air, was just unexplainable,'' she said in a telephone interview from the home of relatives, where she is staying.