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L.A. County Votes To Drop $50 Public Defender Fee

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The L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to drop the small but potentially prohibitive registration fee that low-income individuals seeking a public defender in Los Angeles are required to pay.

Despite their constitutional right to counsel regardless of their ability to pay an attorney, homeless and indigent defendants are currently obligated to pay an upfront $50 "registration fee" before receiving representation from public defenders or court-appointed lawyers. The fees are "especially troubling" for the poorest defendants, and can potentially discourage individuals from exercising their right to a lawyer, according to a recent ACLU report.

"Our Constitution guarantees legal representation for any defendant that cannot afford one, yet this fee undermined that guarantee by requiring defendants to pay to have their constitutional rights honored. Additionally, the fee didn’t make sense—defendants need a public defender precisely because they can’t afford a lawyer," Supervisor Hilda Solis told LAist, adding, "Los Angeles County is better than this, and we demonstrated that today.”

The motion, submitted by Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas, argues that registration fees undermine the right to legal counsel protected by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The motion notes the disproportionate impact that L.A. County registration fees can have on vulnerable populations, and argues that the financial burden of registration fees could dissuade needy defendants from seeking legal help. Registration fees brought in approximately $300,000 for the Public Defender's Office last year, according to the text of the motion. LAist reached out to the Public Defender's Office for comment, but did not immediately hear back.

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California is one of 43 states to charge a public defender fee, the L.A. Times reports; L.A. County instituted a $25 registration fee in 1996, raising the fee to $50 in 2010. Attorneys from the ACLU of Southern California testified in support of the board motion that passed on Tuesday, noting that registration fees are just one of several administrative costs to defendants under California law. "This is an important first step in ensuring that low-income people have the right to counsel in L.A. County," ACLU SoCal attorney Devon Porter told LAist, adding, "We hope other counties that still impose registration fees on low-income defendants will follow L.A.'s lead."