May 8, 2023

On May 8, a lawsuit was filed by The ACLU Foundations of Southern and Northern California and co-counsel Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP and Martínez Aguilasocho Law against Kern County and Kern County Superior Court for systematically denying poor misdemeanor defendants their constitutional rights to counsel and due process. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of UFW Foundation and three Kern County residents. Kern County is located in the state of California. 

The lawsuit describes a fast-track plea mill where probation officers play a prosecutorial role well outside their statutory authority—making plea offers to poor defendants behind closed doors, typically without defense counsel or prosecutors present. Judges then accept these uncounseled pleas in arraignments that often last less than three minutes. Fewer than 5% of misdemeanor defendants in Kern County were represented by counsel at their arraignment. Yet roughly 60% of all defendants plead guilty at their first court appearance. Certain groups of people are more vulnerable to the pressures of the plea mill. 

Plaintiffs are asking the court to declare these practices unconstitutional and illegal, and to guarantee individual consultations with attorneys for all defendants at arraignment proceedings. The lawsuit also asks the court to prohibit Kern County from relying on probation officers to convey plea offers, and to ensure public access to these proceedings.  

The Willkie team is led by partner Eduardo Santacana and includes associates Brandon Franklin and Emily Abbey. 

To learn more, read the ACLU’s press release here

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