Lawsuit may shed defendants

27th June, 2003
Atlanta Joural Constitution
Steve Visser

A federal judge has been asked to remove Fulton County and some of its cities from a lawsuit brought last October that accused the county and 10 cities of violating inmates' right to counsel.

Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, asked U.S. Judge Clarence Cooper on Thursday to dismiss Fulton County, Atlanta, Roswell and Mountain Park from the lawsuit.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that lawyers had to be provided in any case where a defendant faced the possibility of incarceration and not only when a felony is involved.

Bright said the cities he wants dropped from the suit are now meeting the constitutional requirement. He characterized the others cities as being close to being in compliance.

"We're making tremendous progress, things have changed tremendously," he said.

Some cities have failed to provide lawyers to people accused of felonies and misdemeanors for preliminary hearings in part because they delay transferring them to Fulton County Jail.

Cooper said he would rule on the dismissal request by next week. He granted Bright's request for a delay in taking any more legal action against the other cities until Oct. 1.

The lawsuit said indigent defendants charged with misdemeanors are being denied their constitutional right to counsel and held in jail under excessive bails. The suit, by 13 inmates housed in county and city jails, was filed against the county and its municipalities.

The suit says poor defendants picked up on misdemeanors often are sent to city jails and appear before municipal judges without a lawyer during critical stages of their cases.