Denial of the Right to Counsel in Misdemeanor Cases: Court Watching in Nashville, Tennessee

Following a request by the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, ArchCity Defenders organized a court watching program at the Davidson County General Sessions Criminal Court in Nashville on Monday, September 12, 2016. The goal of the program was to learn more about the administration of right to counsel in misdemeanor courts in Nashville, and to learn if defendants were being incarcerated for inability to pay fines and fees.

The observers found that prosecutors did not inform defendants about the process that allows them to seek waiver of fines and fees if they cannot afford to pay – instead, “prosecutor[s] negotiate plea agreements with numerous uncounseled defendants.” Additionally, they noted that when judges impose fines and fees, they “make little to no effort… to determine” if defendants actually have the ability to pay them.

The report also includes an alarming anecdote regarding the court’s failure to inform defendants of indigency waivers. One single Black mother with three children had been to Court 1A five times over a period of two years, facing charges of driving on a suspended license. She couldn’t get her license reinstated because she had never been able to afford the underlying fine. While she explained her situation, a bailiff approached and informed her that she could get an indigency affidavit – the woman said that in all her prior experiences at that court, no one had ever told her about the form. Court observers then went to the clerk’s office to request additional copies of the indigency form (to hand to other defendants), but the clerk refused to give them more than one copy.

You can read the full text of the report here.

Stephen Hanlon, Thomas Harvey, Norman Leifstein, American Bar Association Civil Rights and Social Justice Section, Arch City Defenders, Indiana University School of Law