Under Tennessee law, people unable to afford an attorney who are facing misdemeanor charges that could carry jail time are entitled to a pro bono attorney. But, alarmingly, a new report released by the American Bar Association (ABA) reveals that the constitutional right to counsel is commonly violated in Nashville’s misdemeanor courts.
According to an article in ProPublica, for one day in September 2016, the ABA sent attorneys to volunteer in the Davidson County General Sessions Court in Nashville, also known as Court 1A. The purpose was to “review practices in misdemeanor courts in other states throughout the country.” While in court, the volunteers repeatedly saw that not only were defendants told that they could not speak to a judge, but they also were not advised that they were entitled to representation.
In what the report describes as an “assembly-line atmosphere,” writes ProPublica, defendants were quickly ushered through court—with never a defense attorney present—and told that they had the option to either take a plea deal or not take a deal and then go to trial. When individuals asked to speak to a judge, they were told that they could not do so unless they rejected the plea deal offered.
For the most part, judges were absent from the courtroom. When they did appear, they did not ask defendants whether they “understood the plea agreement or its consequences; did not inform defendants of their right to counsel and to a trial; and did not ask if defendants were waiving any of their rights,” says the report.
“There is a shocking disconnect between the system of justice envisioned by the Supreme Court’s right-to-counsel decisions and what actually occurs in many of this nation’s misdemeanor courts,” says the report.