Davison v. State

Juvenile Law Center, joined by National Legal Aid and Defender Association, filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court of Washington in support of a certified class of children with juvenile cases pending in Grays Harbor County, Washington who have been denied constitutionally adequate indigent defense.

Amici argued that the state should be held liable when youth are deprived of the right to effective assistance of counsel, even when the state has delegated the responsibility of providing  counsel to the county because the right to counsel is fundamental and essential to a fair trial. Amici further argued that effective assistance of counsel is particularly important for youth given their unique vulnerabilities, including: lower literacy levels, limited understanding of the legal proceedings, heightened susceptibility to coercion, and difficulty understanding and weighing long-term consequences of legal decisions such as waiving the right to receive more immediate finality.

In the absence of state oversight, youth in Grays Harbor County have been systemically deprived of their right to effective assistance of counsel both because appointed counsel have failed to advocate effectively for the basic needs of their clients, and because counsel lacked the knowledge or specialized skills required to defend youth in the juvenile justice system as illustrated below.

Despite having no prior criminal history, 11-year-old K.B. had been incarcerated for over a month in 2017 when K.B.’s grandmother sent the Washington State Office of Public Defense (OPD) a 21-page letter detailing how. K.B.’s public defender was “offering no defense” and failing to adequately communicate with the child. In addition, the public defender facilitated attempts to coerce K.B. into pleading guilty, failed to ensure that K.B. received a mandated capacity hearing within the 14-day requirement, and failed to object to the $10,000 bail. In court, OPD observed the public defender failing to stand with the child, leaving the 11-year-old to face the judge’s questioning alone. Despite receiving numerous reports from the juvenile detention center of K.B.’s self-harm and mental health crises, the public defender neither investigated nor sought release and instead wrote to the prosecutor with a plea offer. K.B. was released after a crisis center worker reported K.B.’s treatment as child abuse.

In 2016, 16-year-old M.D. was serving a 120-day sentence in a county juvenile detention center for probation violations—a sentence that was four times the allowable length and, thus, illegal under state law. M.D.’s public defender neither object to the sentence nor attempted to seek M.D.’s release, even after being informed by the OPD of the illegal sentence. The prosecutor eventually filed a motion requesting M.D.’s release.

In 2017, 13-year-old J.C.—who had no prior criminal history—was expelled from a diversion program because of a problem in school. During court hearings, J.C.’s public defender sat at a table while J.C. stood to face judicial questioning alone. After a week of incarceration, J.C. pled guilty to the charge and was sentenced to 21 days in detention with credit for time served. The public defender failed to meet with J.C. in a timely manner, failed to file a motion challenging J.C.’s statements to police, and later admitted in deposition she was unfamiliar with the 2011 U.S. Supreme Court case that held a 13-year-old child’s age and disabilities are legally relevant to the admissibility of statements to police.

The Washington Supreme Court held that “[w]hile the State bears the responsibility to enact a statutory scheme under which local governments can adequately fund and administer a system of indigent public defense,” the State is not liable for a county’s failure to provide adequate public defense services even if the State is aware of the county’s failings. Importantly though, the court further held that “the plaintiffs’ claims alleging systemic, structural deficiencies in the state system of public defense remain viable” and affirmed the lower court’s denial of the State’s motion for summary judgment in part on other grounds, allowing the lawsuit to proceed.