RAWLINS – Despite an estimated 75 percent of people on an annual basis using the Office of the Public Defender when going through the Carbon County court system, the office has recently been dealing with a dire shortage of resources.
In September, John DeLeon’s tenure as a longtime public defender in the county came to a close. Whether he resigned or was terminated, and for what reasons, has yet to be confirmed by the Rawlins Times.
Several unsuccessful attempts to contact DeLeon, as well as Wyoming State Public Defender Diane Lozano, for comment were made.
To fill DeLeon’s void, attorney Randy Hiller, who is not a Rawlins resident and is based in Laramie, was designated last month by Lozano as the county’s supervising public defender.
This means any given public defendant immersed in due process through the county’s Circuit and District courts must rely on a legal representative who lives nearly 100 miles away.
In addition to satellite representation, a recent email correspondence between Commissioner John Espy and Lozano, which was obtained by the Times, noted that Lori Olson, the office’s lone legal assistant, was directed to be transferred to another county.
“The caseloads in Carbon County do not warrant maintaining that position in Rawlins,” Lozano wrote in the email. “All legal assistant duties will be handled by our other office in the 2nd Judicial District located in Laramie.”
Olson declined comment on the matter.
On Tuesday, the Rawlins Times made an unannounced visit to the public defender’s office to speak with Hiller. With the office phone seemingly ringing off the hook, Hiller said that he has no intention of moving to Rawlins, but that the situation is under control.
“Certainly, we want a public defender here in the Rawlins office,” he said. “I’m filling in until we hire the public defender for Rawlins.”
The county is now advertising for a part-time (98 percent) public defender, according to Lozano’s email. In addition, if Hiller cannot cover all cases in a timely fashion, two additional attorneys in Laramie could be used, he noted.
“As you are aware of budget difficulties, we are using our limited resources in a way that is most effective to our clients statewide,” Lozano noted in the same email. “The services provided by the Office of Public Defender in Carbon County will not be hindered by this necessary transfer.”
There could be a few implications, however, that contradict Lozano’s written statement.
According to legal sources, if an attorney is unable to provide sound representation in a timely fashion, this can pose a greater possibility of defendants having to agree to waive initial public court hearings. This means, for felony cases, people could face longer stays in jail, or have the case hanging over their heads for prolonged times, until they face a judge in a prepared fashion.
In addition, a judge can decide to postpone a case; however, this could lead to more appeals, if not case dismissals.
On a grander scale, the possible lack of representation could be argued as unconstitutional. According to the ruling of the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainright, “The Court held that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of counsel is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial and, as such, applies the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Also, according to the Speedy Trial Clause of Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Bill of Rights, the accused “shall enjoy the right to a speedy trial.”
When Espy was asked his thoughts on the matter, he expressed his consternation of having a representative “100 miles away” over “one of the worst stretches of roads in the state of Wyoming.”
“I find it disturbing that (the State Office of the Public Defender) pulled all the resources out of the office before they even tried to fill the void of the lack of a public defender,” he said.
Espy added that, as for all defendants whom are guaranteed Sixth Amendment rights, “Are we denying their right to a speedy trial?”
But the state’s public defender woes have been an ongoing saga some time.
Earlier this year, the state’s Joint Appropriations Committee supported Gov. Matt Mead’s recommended $2.1 million supplement to the state public defender biennium budget, which equates to just half of the additional $4.5 million Lozano requested. According to WyoFile.com, with the $2.1 million supplement, the office’s biennium budget would have been $26.7 million.
Following the same Appropriations hearing, which was held in January, Lozano was quoted as saying, “If we don’t get any of the new attorneys we requested, we’ll refuse to represent 4,191 people next year.”
In other words, the county may not get what it pays for.
According to state statute 7-6-113, “total state and federal funding of the public defender program shall be 85 percent of the state public defender budget.” Therefore, each of Wyoming’s 23 counties are required to defray 15 percent of the state’s public defender budget.
If Carbon County isn’t within the fiscal year able allocate enough funds to the state’s public defender budget, “the state treasurer may deduct the amount from sales tax revenues due to the county from the state and shall credit the amount to the general fund.”
The amount due to the state from the county regarding the public defender office is based on the county’s population, assessed valuation and serious crime caseload.
With that, Espy noted that the situation could have been handled differently.
“I almost got the feeling that they threw the baby out with the bathwater when they got rid of their last public defender, so we’re going to gut the whole office? And they’re hiding behind budget concerns…”