The American Civil Liberties Union and Willkie Far & Gallagher LLP filed a lawsuit on behalf of three Kern County residents and the United Farm Workers against Kern County for operating a plea mill. According to Myra Joachin, an attorney with ACLU Socal, the county has been coercing people into pleas in the arraignment system.
“The constitution does require the individual to speak to an attorney and receive advice of counsel before they enter a plea,” said Joachin. “That is not what’s happening here. Individuals are being passed through a system where they’re systematically waiving their right to counsel their other trial rights and entering please without understanding the serious consequences of those pleas.”
Joachin explained that over the last 15 years, people have gone to court for misdemeanors and pleaded guilty within a couple of minutes. She also stated that since 2015 more than 50,000 people plead guilty, less than 5% of misdemeanor cases are represented by counsel, and more than 60% of people plead guilty in their first appearance.
Additionally, people of color and those who do not speak English fluently plead guilty disproportionately at their first appearance. Individuals with behavioral health issues plead guilty without a lawyer according to Joachin.
Some of the consequences of the plea mill include; significant jail time, fines, deportation or loss of a green card, jeopardize housing and child custody, and future arrest will result in more serious consequences due to the previous plea.
“We are honored to represent the UFW foundation and Kern County residents, Laura Hart, John Doe, and Jeannie Parent. As they seek to stop this unlawful system,” said Joachin.
Hart lost her home in 2014 and over the years said she has had many encounters with the police. In early 2021 she was arrested and released in Bakersfield with no way to get back to where she’d been living in Lake Isabella, she stated that she then lived on the streets in Bakersfield.
She recalled that when she was arrested she wasn’t allowed to take her medication with her so after being released she did not have resources and her mental health suffered.
“In August 2021 I was again arrested, this time while in a serious mental and emotional crisis that was exacerbated by my prior interactions with law enforcement,” stated Hart.
Hart explained that her cases were heard at the Majave courthouse and during the transportation she was fully shackled and tossed around the van due to it not having a seat belt.
“I had requested accommodations for my physical disability but I received none. The experience was dangerous for me. It was also dehumanizing,” said Hart.
Once at the courthouse, she had no attorney or support and she described not being able to advocate for herself. She felt her only option was to plead no contest.
“It wasn’t until much later that I realized that the hearing could have turned out differently. A lawyer could have helped challenge the evidence against me,” said Hart.
Hart stated that shortly after the Kern County Superior Court concluded that they could not charge her for the earlier case and she needed mental health treatment.
“How can it be that I was competent to plead guilty in one case without a lawyer the first time I appeared in court and yet not competent in another case only a short time after? It is clear to me that the system does not work,” said Hart.
Joachin stated that this lawsuit is to bring an end to cases like this and the plea mill.
“The county and the court cannot continue to violate the rights to counsel and due process through this plea mill system. It is time to end the plea mill and start ensuring that Kern County protects the right of everyone who walks through these courthouse doors,” said Joachin.