Criminal defendants who are too poor to hire their own defense attorneys will have to pay $50 for public-defender representation under an ordinance approved unanimously by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
People who are too poor to pay even the new $50 "registration fee," can ask a judge to waive it.
Despite concerns about the impact on the Sixth Amendment right to defense counsel, many counties in California have implemented court-appointed-attorney fees, which the state Legislature legalized in 1996. Originally set at $25, the cap was raised to $50 in 2010.
"It reflects two things," says Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, senior policy advocate for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties: "the desperate state of all levels of government because of draconian budget cuts and, second, an ill-conceived trend to shift costs to those least able to afford it and for whom debt becomes a significant barrier to moving on with their lives."
The county predicts that the new fee will generate $600,000 annually for the Department of the Public Defender. That would require 10 percent of its 120,000 clients to be found capable of coping with the fee and to actually pay it. The county is forbidden from denying legal representation even to defendants who fail to comply.
"The money will ease the burden on taxpayers because it will help cover the cost of providing a legal defense," Supervisor Dianne Jacob said in a statement provided by her spokesperson, Steve Schmidt. "I want to stress that the fee is tied to a defendant's ability to pay and that judges have the discretion to waive the amount."
But Jacob may have cast her vote based on inaccurate information. Prior to the vote, Jacob said the county's legal department had informed her that the state "requires" counties to collect the fee. When directed to state law that indicates otherwise, Schmidt deferred to the County Counsel's office.
After the vote, County Counsel acknowledged that the Legislature authorized counties to collect the fees, but it's up to the counties individually to decide whether to implement them. Schmidt could not comment whether that information would have changed Jacob's vote.
To Jacob's credit, her office was the only one to formally answer questions about the ordinance. The county's Communication Office did not respond to numerous requests for information during the week leading up to the vote.