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Alford v. Johnson County Commissioners

Court of Appeals of Indiana

December 29, 2017

Kenneth Alford et al., Appellants-Plaintiffs,
v.
Johnson County Commissioners et al., Appellees-Defendants. [1]

         Appeal from the Shelby Superior Court The Honorable Robert W. Freese, Special Judge Trial Court Cause No. 73D01-1601-PL-3

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS Jessica A. Wegg Jonathan C. Little Saeed & Little, LLP Indianapolis, Indiana Michael K. Sutherlin Michael K. Sutherlin & Associates Indianapolis, Indiana

          ATTORNEYS FOR JUDICIAL APPELLEES Curtis T. Hill, Jr. Attorney General of Indiana Kyle Hunter Deputy Attorney General Indianapolis, Indiana

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEES JOHNSON COUNTY COMMISSIONERS AND PUBLIC DEFENDERS William W. Barrett Daniel J. Layden Williams Barrett & Wilkowski, LLP Greenwood, Indiana

          KIRSCH, JUDGE.

         [¶1] Kenneth Alford ("Alford"), Terry Hasket ("Hasket"), Richard Daniels ("Daniels"), Richard Bunton ("Bunton"), Anthony Owens ("Owens"), Keith Nye ("Nye"), and Wardell Strong ("Strong") (together, "the Appellants"), who are seven men charged with crimes in Johnson County, Indiana and were assigned public defenders to represent them during their criminal proceedings, appeal the dismissal of their complaint against the Johnson County Commissioners, the judges who preside over criminal cases in Johnson County, and the individual attorneys who had contracts to act as public defenders in Johnson County. The Appellants appeal from the dismissal of their complaint, in which they alleged that the rights of indigent criminal defendants under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 1, section 13 of the Indiana Constitution are being ignored in Johnson County because the attorneys assigned as public defenders by the trial judges are burdened by unmanageable caseloads and are, therefore, not providing actual assistance of counsel as required by the United States Constitution and the Indiana Constitution. They raise the following dispositive issue for our review: whether the Appellants sufficiently alleged facts to support their claims for relief under the United States and Indiana Constitutions and their third-party beneficiary breach of contract claim such that the trial court erred when it dismissed their complaint.

         [¶2] We affirm.

         Facts and Procedural History[2]

         [¶3] The Indiana Legislature has established a statutory framework for providing legal defense services to indigent persons in criminal cases, which is applicable throughout the state. See Ind. Code art. 33-40. This framework allows the counties in Indiana the flexibility to create local systems that cater to the needs and specific circumstances of the particular county and its citizens. The statutes dealing with public defenders permit counties to address the constitutional mandate to provide criminal defense for indigent individuals in a number of different ways. At the trial level, public defender services in Indiana are provided in one of three ways. Under the first option, Indiana Code section 33-40-7-3(a) provides that "[a] county executive may adopt an ordinance establishing a county public defender board . . . ." If a county decides to establish a county public defender board, then that local board must prepare a comprehensive plan for providing legal defense services to indigent persons that must include at least one of the following options: (1) establishing a public defender's office; (2) contracting with an attorney, a group of attorneys, or a private organization; (3) appointing attorneys on a case by case basis using an assigned system of panel attorneys; (4) in certain designated counties, establishing a public defender's office for the criminal division of the superior court. Ind. Code § 33-40-7-5. As a second option, judges from courts with criminal jurisdiction in counties with a population less than 400, 000 may contract with attorneys to provide legal counsel for indigent persons charged with crimes. These contracts may run from year to year or any length of time determined by the particular judge. Ind. Code §§ 33-40-8-1, 33-40-8-3. Lastly, in certain exigent circumstances, a trial court may request that the State Public Defender provide a qualified attorney for the defense of an indigent person. Ind. Code § 33-40-2-1. In Johnson County, judges in the county courts having criminal jurisdiction -- the four judges involved in this case - follow the second option and contract with attorneys to provide legal representation to indigent criminal defendants.

         [¶4] Each of the Appellants in this case is an indigent defendant and was charged with at least one felony in the Johnson County Courts. The cases of six of the Appellants, Alford, Hasket, Daniels, Bunton, Nye, and Strong, are still pending before the Johnson County Courts. Owens entered into a plea agreement, the details of which are not included in the record. A public defender has been appointed to represent each of the Appellants. The Appellants' complaint names five attorneys (together, "the Public Defenders") that were assigned, at various times, to the seven named Appellants. Appellants' App. Vol. II at 57-60. The attorneys who act as public defenders in Johnson County act in that capacity in addition to maintaining their own private practices. The complaint makes allegations against the Public Defenders in two general areas: (1) caseload in 2014 (the year prior to when Appellants were arrested and charged); and (2) deficiencies in performance as counsel.

         [¶5] Michael Bohn ("Bohn") represents three of the Appellants, Hasket, Daniels, and Nye. Bohn was assigned 83 unique felony cases and 69 unique misdemeanor cases in 2014. Hasket alleged that he specifically requested a fast and speedy trial, but that Bohn "disregarded or ignored" the request and ultimately waived Hasket's speedy trial rights. Id. at 62. Hasket also alleged that Bohn refused to comply with his requests regarding discovery, pressured him to accept a plea deal, and attempted to "leverage [his] criminal record to persuade him to accept a plea deal." Id. Daniels alleged that he did not speak with Bohn until his initial hearing where Bohn "attempted to pressure him into accepting a plea deal." Id. at 63. Daniels claims that, since that date, Bohn has only spoken with him twice, not visited him in person, and in each interaction pressured him to accept a plea agreement. Id. Nye alleged that he spoke with Bohn at his initial hearing and asked for a speedy trial, but Bohn "refused to file the motion." Id. at 64. Nye also alleged that he had little to no contact with Bohn outside of the courtroom.

         [¶6] Daniel Vandivier ("Vandivier") represents Bunton and previously represented Alford for a period of time. Vandivier was assigned 50 unique felony cases and 25 unique misdemeanor cases in 2014. Bunton was arrested in Colorado and extradited to Indiana and charged with felony failure to pay child support. Bunton was released on bond and alleged that after nearly a month he had still not met or spoken with Vandivier. Id. Vandivier previously represented Alford, and during that period of representation, Vandivier only met with Alford during court hearings. Id. at 61.

         [¶7] Alford's case was reassigned to Matthew Soloman ("Solomon"), and Solomon represented Alford for a period of time. Alford alleged that Solomon only visited him once in jail and did not respond to his letter requesting a fast and speedy trial. Id. at 61, 82. Alford claims that he was "pressured to accept a plea deal despite his professed innocence." Id. at 61. Solomon withdrew from his representation of Alford, and John Wilson ("Wilson") was then appointed to represent Alford, but had not yet entered an appearance at the time the complaint was filed.

         [¶8] Wilson represents Strong and previously represented Owens for a period of time. Wilson was assigned 176 unique felony cases and 32 unique misdemeanor cases in 2014. Strong alleged that Wilson only met with him in person at his initial hearing and, then, for more than three months, only spoke with him once by telephone. Id. at 65. Strong alleged that he sent Wilson letters requesting discovery and a suppression hearing and providing information he believes could exonerate him, but his letters went unanswered. Id. Strong specifically requested a bond reduction hearing, but Wilson did not file any request for a hearing with the trial court. Id. Wilson also represented Owens for a period of time. Owens alleged that Wilson "refused [his] requests to conduct discovery . . . [and] pressured him to take a plea deal." Id. at 66. Owens alleged that Wilson also pressured him "to waive his right to a jury trial" and misrepresented his eligibility for habitual ...


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