Tens of thousands of South Carolinians wanted for arrest for skipping court dates or blowing off fines might be breathing a sigh of relief as judges have stopped jailing some of these low-level offenders under instructions from the state’s chief justice.
But the move has stirred a fear that prolonging their freedom will jeopardize victims of their crimes, which include domestic violence. Some judges also reportedly feel threatened with a jail sentence of their own if they run afoul of the new directive. And some authorities worry that the move will embolden people to skip their court dates altogether.
In the past, people who fail to pay fines or don't show up for trial on certain misdemeanors or traffic tickets have been captured and put behind bars, sometimes until their bills are paid or their maximum jail terms are served. But advocates said the practice turned jails into “debtors' prisons.”
Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty has taken steps recently to address such concerns, particularly when impoverished people are convicted and incarcerated without ever being told of their right to have an attorney defend them.
Scores of arrest warrants statewide are being recalled as a result, even though Beatty has yet to issue a formal written order on the practice. Many summary courts, which include county magistrates and municipal judges from the Lowcountry to the Upstate, have suspended all arrests on bench warrants as they scramble to figure out which cases are affected.
Beatty's instructions do not apply to the most serious misdemeanors and felonies that are handled in circuit court.
But in Horry County, about 230 bench warrants from domestic violence cases and jury trials are among the 7,500 being recalled, sheriff's Sgt. Timmy Tyner said. More than 4,600 stem from traffic violations.
In Charleston and Greenville counties, law officers were told not to serve any of the thousands of pending bench warrants from magistrates and city judges, authorities there said, as they tally exactly how many cases are affected.
Charleston County Chief Magistrate Leroy Linen on Tuesday also ordered summary court judges to recall all bench warrants until further notice.
Courts statewide have long convicted people without hearing any evidence, simply because the defendants didn’t show up, Linen said. It's time for courts to make sure those people know of their right to an attorney before putting them behind bars, he said. Jail time can strip them of jobs, while boosting costs for the counties that keep them behind bars, Linen said.
“There is so much collateral damage from jailing them,” he said. “We had been doing this practice all over the state, and nobody was saying anything. … (The chief justice) was trying to impress upon everyone that we must … give people their due process rights.”
Beatty issued the instructions Nov. 1 during a mandatory training session in Columbia for summary court judges. While Linen and other judges said they took the directions to heart, others saw his words as a threat.
The justice explained that violating someone's constitutional rights is an offense and that there are consequences for an offense, Linen said.
The weight of Beatty’s words became quickly apparent statewide with thousands of bench warrants being recalled.
But Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said warrants are a routine mechanism to ensure defendants show up, aiding the court's efficiency.
There may be other unforeseen consequences, he said.
“Some of these cases may also have victims, and they will have to be notified,” Cannon said. “There are a lot of ramifications. It can’t simply be a swipe of the pen and you take these warrants off the books.”
Lindsey Jacobs, attorney for the S.C. Victim Assistance Network, praised efforts to fix problems in the courts.
“But their errors on the front end are making the victims suffer now,” she said. “This is just an opportunity for perpetrators to stay at large and possibly harm the person who got them brought to court in the first place.”
'Reminder of the law'
Issues with South Carolina’s summary courts were brought to light in the past year, largely through studies by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union.
They said many of the state’s lowest courts were routinely failing to inform defendants of their Sixth Amendment right to a lawyer and a public defender, a requirement when jail time is a possible punishment. The ACLU followed up with lawsuits against Lexington County, Beaufort and Bluffton, where they said court systems breed "modern-day debtors' prisons."
Beatty on Sept. 15 distributed a memo to judges in such courts statewide, decrying reported violations of the right to counsel. He said any defendants who couldn’t be provided a lawyer can only be fined, not jailed. The same directive applied to anyone convicted while absent at trial if they hadn't already been informed of their rights.
“I am mindful of the constraints that you face in your courts,” Beatty said in that memo, “but these principles of due process to all defendants who come before you cannot be abridged.”
Susan Dunn, attorney at the ACLU of South Carolina, said nothing in Beatty's measures should come as a surprise.
"He's just trying to bring these courts in line with existing law," she said. "But even there, he has an uphill battle."
Beatty gave more detailed instructions when hundreds of judges sat in front of him for the mandatory training last week. They were handed a 12-page outline, copies of which were provided to The Post and Courier.
Any defendants who don’t show up can be put on trial, but prosecutors must still present evidence, the outline stated. Often in the past, judges were convicting such defendants without hearing testimony.
No-show defendants, though, could still face jail time if they had already been informed of their rights at a previous court appearance, such as a bond hearing. But Beatty’s directive applies especially to people who are cited for violations in the field without an arrest.
Linen, the Charleston County chief magistrate, recalled a recent example in which another judge convicted someone of trespassing and dished out the maximum 30-day jail term despite that defendant never appearing in court. The defendant was jailed but later released after Linen heard about the case, he said.
It’s been common practice for years to automatically convict such people, Linen said.
Now in Linen's courts, he said, people who fail to pay fines or are convicted in their absence at trial will be sent letters explaining the ways to square up their cases. Payment plans will be an option.
If they never respond, a warrant can be issued. But instead of being jailed for a lengthy time, they will be brought promptly in front of the magistrate.
“(Beatty) is not saying we can’t send someone to jail,” Linen said, “but you have to make sure that person’s right is upheld.”
'Victims have rights as well'
Tiger Wells, an attorney at the Municipal Association of South Carolina, said most city courts already are vigilant about advising people of their rights.
"The directive is really just a reminder of the law," he said.
But towns, cities and counties all clearly heard Beatty. And they acted.
Folly Beach Chief Municipal Judge Bentley Price said other judges at the training session started talking about how Beatty's commands would negatively affect their cities' bottom line. Price, though, said he called his court clerk that afternoon and canceled nearly 300 warrants in Folly Beach.
“He’s the chief; he’s the boss," Price said of Beatty. "It was very simple for me. I was astonished why the other judges were second-guessing him."
In Greenville County, Chief Magistrate Mark Edmonds said he ordered law officers not to arrest anyone on bench warrants from his court until the affected cases are identified, which might take until January. Magistrates are going through them one by one to figure out the circumstances that prompted the warrant, he said.
Victims, he said, will not be lost amid the effort.
“The victims have rights as well,” Edmonds said. “We also want to make sure their rights are protected.”
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said the victims are her primary concern.
But she was startled to learn, she said, that even defendants who had bond hearings on magistrate-level offenses were not told of their rights.
"By recalling all those bench warrants, it seems the judges are admitting that failure," she said. "It is a positive step that the chief justice is correcting this huge flaw in the magistrate court process."