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In the United States, under the Sixth Amendment, any person accused of a crime has the right to legal counsel. That legal counsel can be obtained by the individual, or by the state as a public defender.
Public defenders work for the state and handle cases for indigent defendants ranging from traffic court, criminal court and all those in- between.
Traditionally, South Carolina has paid public defenders for their work, but in 2015, for municipal court, the state shifted the burden of payment from the state to local municipalities.
“When the state passed its budget in 2015, it added a specific proviso which stated that in municipal courts, a public defender’s office does not have to provide services unless we contract with them to do so,” said Hardeeville City Attorney Prina Maines. “So they’re (public defenders) not obligated to do so. For some time now, our city manager and I have attempted to negotiate a contract with our circuit public defender. But we have not been able to do so successfully.”
Therefore, the city has drafted an ordinance to create the office of a public defender. The city then will send out an RFQ to qualified criminal defense attorneys in the state and hire someone to act as the city’s public defender.
In order for an accused person to acquire the city’s public defender in municipal court, the defendant must first submit an application to the city for a fee of $40.
Then the defendant will undergo a hearing by a judge who will determine if the defendant is indigent.
Indigence is defined by the Supreme Court of South Carolina as a person that is financially unable to employ counsel.
The city will pay for the public defender from their court budget. The city will allot some of their budget toward paying the public defender, but those funds will only be spent if the public defender is obtained by a defendant.
“We have to provide the service and make it available. My point is, it’s seldom used. If an attorney is requested, we have to provide one,” said city manager Mike Czymbor.
He also said he believes a public defender was only requested once in the two years that he’s worked in Hardeeville.
As of now, the city will only seek service of one public defender, but Maines said in the future the city could look to contract out or partner with a rotating list of qualified public defenders if the need arises.
A second reading to approve the ordinance is scheduled for Hardeeville’s City Council meeting May 18.