In Colorado municipal courts, justice is often hard to come by if you're poor. ACLU of Colorado client Shawn Hardman found that out the hard way when he was jailed for nearly three months by the Colorado Springs Municipal Court for panhandling - "flying a sign" asking people for help.
Here's the thing: Shawn was completely innocent. Holding a sign asking for help is not a crime in Colorado Springs. And the ordinance he was charged under is punishable only by fine and not by jail. But Shawn never had access to a lawyer. No one was there to counsel him and advise him on his rights. Without a lawyer, Shawn pled guilty in court. Then his fines were converted to jail when he couldn't afford to pay - an unconstitutional practice that no lawyer was there to stop.
Here's what Shawn had to say about the ordeal:
"It's hard to live on the street, to get by without a home, a bathroom, or safety in your belongings. The City of Colorado Springs made living on the street even harder when they kept ticketing me for just holding my sign asking for help, and then locking me up for almost three months when I didn't have any money to pay those tickets. I was trapped in a cell that it seemed like I could never get out of. I was told over and over that I either had to pay or go back to jail. Without a home or a job, the cycle kept repeating."
To its credit, Colorado Springs agreed to end the unconstitutional debtor's prison practices that led to Shawn's incarceration and to pay a $103,000 settlement to compensate Shawn and others who spent time in jail for non-jailable offenses.
But Shawn's story is not unique. The ACLU of Colorado has discovered that across the state incarcerated municipal defendants often plead guilty without counsel at first appearance to crimes they did not commit.
In state and county courts, an attorney is available at that critical first appearance to advocate for the release of jailed defendants and to advise those defendants on pleas when jail is a possible sentence. But that counsel is denied in municipal courts, where jailed defendants must face the judge alone at first appearance, must make arguments for release alone, and must decide how to plead alone. This is especially troublesome for indigent defendants who are stuck in jail because they can't post bail. Those inmates face a terrible choice: either plead guilty without counsel in the hope of a prompt release on "time served," or ask for counsel and go back to jail to wait usually more than a week for the next court appearance.
This choice is particularly cruel because, unlike in state and county courts, the bulk of municipal defendants are charged with minor ordinance violations that pose no threat to public safety, such as park hours violations, sleeping in a car, or having a dog off leash.
As a result of their uncounseled pleas, municipal defendants often go on to experience dire consequences -- including obstacles to employment, housing, and government benefits -- that were never explained to them, due to the lack of counsel.
Governor Hickenlooper can help solve this problem by signing a bipartisan bill (HB 1309) passed this session by nearly three-fourths of the legislature, now waiting on his desk. HB 1309 will ensure legal counsel at first appearance to the most vulnerable municipal defendants, will mandate all defendants in Colorado have the same access to counsel, and will bring Colorado's municipal courts in line with Constitutional standards. It is an important civil liberties protection that will reduce the number of poor and homeless defendants, like Shawn Hardman, who are wrongly punished for crimes they didn't commit. The Governor should sign it without delay.