- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 15, 2015

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) - Overworked public defenders in Fresno County are pressuring indigent defendants to plead guilty and leaving them to spend extended time in jail before trial instead of addressing their cases quickly, the American Civil Liberties says in a lawsuit.

The lawsuit accuses the county of grossly underfunding the public defender’s office. It was filed Tuesday on behalf of Peter Yepez, who says he spent almost a year in jail before he was interviewed by a public defender about the facts of a robbery and stolen property case against him.

He says the lawyers assigned to his case advised him to plead guilty, though he maintained his innocence. He eventually pleaded no contest.

Calls to the public defender’s office and the county were not immediately returned.

The lawsuit cites other examples of what it says is inadequate representation by the public defender’s office, and it blames county budget cuts starting in 2008 for the deficiencies. The ACLU has filed similar lawsuits in Idaho and other states, alleging they were not doing enough to ensure adequate representation for defendants who can’t afford to hire a lawyer.

Tuesday’s lawsuit focuses on Fresno County, though it names the state and governor as defendants, alleging state officials are not providing any oversight to ensure counties meet constitutional standards for legal representation.

“In Fresno County, persons accused of a crime who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer are effectively tried within a system where the prosecutors determine the outcome with little or no input or challenge from the defense,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit alleges the county is violating defendants’ rights to counsel and due process.

A spokeswoman for the state attorney general’s office referred a reporter to the governor’s office. Gareth Lacy, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said the governor’s office has not seen the complaint and didn’t anticipate commenting on it.

ACLU attorney Novella Coleman said Fresno County public defenders have some of the highest caseloads in the state.

“There’s a limit to what kind of representation you can provide when you don’t have enough hours in the day to work the cases the way you should,” she said.

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