Small Crimes, Big Consequences: Why Fairness in Municipal Courts is so Important

Friday, March 2, 2012

Since there are 8 to 10 million misdemeanor cases in courts around the United States each year1, chances are good that you or someone you know may end up facing a misdemeanor charge at some point in their life.  Misdemeanor courts are a “window to the judicial branch for many people who do not normally have contact with the judicial system.”2 

While no one wants to be convicted, some might think a misdemeanor conviction is not that big a deal in the long run; it is just a one-time instance of shoplifting or suspended driver’s license or fighting, right?  Wrong.

Aside from the jail time and fees and fines that may be imposed as part of a misdemeanor sentence, there can be life-long consequences of a misdemeanor charge.  In connection with our work on criminal records issues, the ACLU has heard from numerous individuals denied housing or jobs because of a misdemeanor on their record.  This is happening even if the offense occurred many years ago and there are no recent arrests or charges.  Some of the most distressing cases involve military veterans who, suffering from PTSD and addiction, rack up misdemeanor charges before they are able to access services that assist them in turning their lives around.  Despite their rehabilitation, the consequences of their misdemeanor records continue to haunt them for years.  Misdemeanor convictions can also result in deportation, loss of gun rights, restrictions on international travel, and ineligibility for student loans, professional licenses, public housing and food assistance. 

In Washington state, misdemeanor cases are usually handled in municipal or district court.  In part because so many people are affected by misdemeanor cases and their consequences, the ACLU-WA is participating in a lawsuit challenging the shockingly deficient public defense systems in two municipal courts.  We are concerned that the public defenders were spending only half an hour on most of their cases, despite the serious consequences that can result.  A federal judge recently ruled the case can go forward against the cities of Mount Vernon and Burlington. The court also granted the case class-action status.

1 April 2009 report by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers “Minor Crimes, Massive Waste: The Terrible Toll of America’s Broken Misdemeanor Courts”


2 In re Michels, 150 Wn.2d 159, 174, 75 P.3d 950 (2003) (Washington Supreme Court)