Public defender is one busy guy

Public Defender Herb Hoefer talks to one of the 44 clients whose cases he handled on Thursday during a North Charleston Municipal Court session.

Herb Hoefer didn't represent the first defendant who appeared before North Charleston Municipal Court Judge David Bowers on Thursday afternoon. But he represented 44 of the next 67.

For Hoefer, who could be considered the busiest lawyer in the Lowcountry, it was a fairly typical day.

Hoefer is an assistant public defender, a government-paid lawyer for those who can't afford one. He concentrates on magistrate and municipal courts.

He walked into court with a 3-inch-thick stack of manila folders, and his clients faced such charges as check fraud, driving under suspension, simple marijuana possession and first-offense driving under the influence.

Last year, Hoefer represented 931 clients -- or about four every work day.

Granted, the cases aren't complex, and most charges carry a maximum jail time of 30 days.

Still, his boss, 9th Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington, admitted he's not sure how Hoefer juggles so many cases before 12 local courts across Charleston County.

"I worry about him because we're asking him to do a Herculean task," Pennington said.

And the task could get even more intense following a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Padilla vs. Kentucky that requires lawyers to let their clients know if a conviction might jeopardize their ability to remain in the United States.

Pennington said that might make Hoefer's clients less willing to strike a deal and more likely to pursue a time-consuming jury trial.

"It's going to change the ease with which you can resolve many of these cases because the deportation eclipses everything else," he said.

Hoefer said he often makes phone calls to clients to discuss their cases, and usually meets with them in person on Friday mornings to gauge what they want to do.

On Friday afternoons he talks to prosecutors about what kind of bargain they might strike. "I call it, 'Let's make a deal day,' " Hoefer said.

Hoefer often can convince a prosecutor to agree to a lower fine or counseling if his client pleads guilty. Other charges also can be dismissed in a deal.

Hoefer said most clients are willing to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser penalty. The defendant wins with a lighter sentence, and the state wins by avoiding a costly jury trial. "The majority of the time we can do that, and the client is happy with that," he said.

Pennington helped save Hoefer's position by getting the city of North Charleston to contribute toward funding it in exchange for Hoefer's work in that city's municipal court.

As he appeared before Bowers

Thursday, nine of his clients didn't show up, and Hoefer asked to be relieved as their lawyer. If they continue to fail to appear, they could get convicted in their absence, then arrested and jailed.

"Any sweet deal we were able to work out before is gone," Hoefer said. "They're flying on their own."

On a recent day, Pennington said there were about 33 people in the county jail on magistrate-level offenses. "There would probably be four times that if Herb weren't there to move people along," he added. "There would be a Herb Hoefer wing."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that those facing jail time are required to receive legal representation, but Pennington said many counties in South Carolina have struggled with how to accomplish that.

Around that time, County Council funded a public defender's position to handle magistrate-level cases, mostly to ensure that those defendants didn't spend more time than necessary in the county's then severely-overcrowded jail.

Hoefer said he realizes quality can suffer occasionally when he handles so much quantity.

"This is probably quicker than we'd like to be, but at least we're able to provide some service, which is lacking in other parts of South Carolina," he said.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771 or at