Our Founding Fathers were insistent that next to life itself, nothing is more valuable than liberty.  In Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court made clear that a lawyer is essential to ensure justice is done and liberty is protected.  The Court said that a layperson cannot possibly safeguard their own liberty in a complex system of law and procedure without a lawyer.  In one of its most important decisions, a unanimous Court declared that the State must provide a lawyer to any person who cannot afford one before it sets out to take their liberty from them.  This idea is part and parcel of American justice.

The meaning could not be clearer: if the state chooses to invest taxpayer dollars criminalizing behavior, monitoring its citizens, accusing them of wrongdoing, and seeking to deprive them of their liberty, it must also make the appropriate investment to ensure the fight is fair.

An accusation does not make a person guilty. Police need only to show probable cause before arresting someone. But the probable cause standard is so low that a police officer is authorized to arrest a person even when it is more likely that they are innocent than guilty (some judges and scholars opine that probable cause equates to roughly a 1 in 3 chance that a person is guilty – or a 2 in 3 chance that they are not).  We can therefore be certain that an enormous number of innocent people are routinely arrested.  But we so abhor the thought that we would incarcerate an innocent person that the presumption of innocence is enshrined in our constitution.  Therefore we must assume every person accused of a crime is innocent unless and until the state proves otherwise.  This is the only way to protect us all.  This critical protection is rendered meaningless if a person is forced to confront the state without a lawyer.  It is really that simple.  If we believe that every individual deserves justice regardless of their station in life, we must ensure that every person is provided a lawyer if they cannot afford one. But far too often states have undermined this important safeguard by making the test of whether a person can or cannot afford a lawyer so extreme that even the most indigent of defendants may be deemed unworthy of counsel.

Many of us cannot afford the thousands of dollars it costs to fight a criminal charge.  Most Americans live paycheck to paycheck.  Yet, the fact that one has a paycheck has been used by judges to try to deprive accused citizens of the right to counsel.  In the post below I address one such story out of Orlando, Florida.  No one should have to sell their car, mortgage their home, or choose between having the basic necessities in life, and being afforded the venerable right to counsel. 

Need a Lawyer?  Sell Everything – Talk Poverty