Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

New York: Indigent Defendants' Suit Over Non-representation Ruled Justiciable

by Mike Rigby

On May 6, 2010, the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, held that indigent defendants in five New York counties who alleged they were effectively provided no representation at their arraignment and subsequent legal proceedings raised justiciable claims.

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant "the right to have the assistance of counsel for his defense." Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963) extends this right to indigent defendants. In New York, by legislative mandate, the performance of the State's obligation under Gideon is left up to the counties and discharged according to the counties' own rules and practices and with county resources.

The Plaintiffs in this lawsuit, criminal defendants in various prosecutions in five counties—Washington, Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, and Suffolk—contend that the above mentioned arrangement has worked to deprive them and other similarly situated indigent defendants in the aforementioned counties of constitutionally and statutorily guaranteed representational rights. Plaintiffs asked the court to declare that their rights and the rights of the putative class they sought to represent were being violated and to issue an injunction preventing further abridgment of their right to counsel. The Appellate Division dismissed the action as non-justiciable holding that "there was no cognizable claim for ineffective assistance of counsel other than one seeking post-conviction relief" and that "violation of a criminal defendant's right to counsel could not be vin¬dicated in a collateral civil proceeding, particularly where the object of the collateral action was to compel an additional allocation of public resources, which the Court found to be a properly legislative perspective."

The New York Supreme Court disagreed with the Appellate Division and reinstated the case. The Supreme Court argued that the fundamental question was whether the State had met its obligation under Gideon to provide legal representation. The Court noted that according to the complaint, a number of the plaintiffs were altogether without representation at their arraignments and were subsequently jailed after bonds were set in amounts they could not afford. This, according to the complaint, was illustrative of a fairly common practice of leaving indigent defendants unrepres¬ented by counsel not only during their arraignment but throughout subsequent legal proceedings, in some cases where pleas were taken.

In addition to outright non-representation, the Supreme Court noted, the complaint contained many allegations that even when counsel was appointed the assistance was ineffective. The attorneys were typically unavailable to their clients, "conferred with them little, if at all, were often completely unresponsive to their urgent inquiries and requests from jail, sometimes for months on end, waived important rights without consulting them, and ultimately appeared to do little more than act as conduits for plea offers, some of which purportedly were highly unfavorable”.

According to the Court, the above summarized allegations stated cognizable Sixth Amendment claims. The Supreme Court further concluded that construing the allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the complaint stated a claim for constructive denial of the right to counsel by reason of insufficient compliance with the constitutional mandate of Gideon.

As such, the case was remanded to the trial court for proceedings consistent with this opinion. See: Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York, 15 N.Y.3d 8, 930 N.E.2d 217 (NY 2010).

On remand the trial Court denied the state's motion to declare attorney-client privilege waived as to certain individuals, and the state appealed. The trial court’s order was affirmed by the Appellate Division on July 1, 2010. See: Hurrell-Harring v. State, 75 A.D.3d 667, 905 N.Y.S.2d 334 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept. 2010).

On remand again, the plaintiffs moved for class-action certification in the case, which was denied. They appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed on January 6, 2011 and remanded the case for certification as a class-action. See: Hurrell-Harring v. State, 81 A.D.3d 69, 914 N.Y.S.2d 367 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept. 2011).

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Hurrell-Harring v. State