PHILADELPHIA - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the law firm of Pepper Hamilton LLP filed an emergency petition today with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court requesting the immediate release of 18 indigent men from the Berks County jail. The men, who have spent months in prison for failure to pay child support, were never provided with legal representation.
"Many of these men have good reasons why they couldn't pay child support, such as an injury or the loss of a job, "said Mary Catherine Roper, staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania and one of the attorneys representing the men. "But without a lawyer, they were not able to make their case and ended up in jail. This helps no one - they can't work while they are in jail and will have a harder time finding work once they get out."
The men all appeared before the Court of Common Pleas of Berks County in 2008 and 2009 on charges that they failed to pay court-ordered child support. Despite the fact they faced jail time, none of them were provided with attorneys during the proceedings. They were all sentenced to serve time after judges found them guilty of civil contempt. After negotiations with Pepper Hamilton and the ACLU, the Berks County court eventually agreed to provide the men with new hearings, but refused to release them in the meantime.
"One of the most fundamental protections of our legal system is the guarantee that you won't be put in jail without having a lawyer to argue that you shouldn't be there," said Stephen Harvey of Pepper Hamilton, lead counsel for the petitioners. "This situation calls out for correction by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court."
In filing the "King's Bench" proceeding, the lawyers in the case are asking the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to use its power to supervise lower courts and intervene in particularly urgent situations. The petition seeks the immediate release of these men and new hearings at which they will have the assistance of appointed attorneys.
Over the past five years, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has contacted Lawrence, Beaver, Westmoreland, Clearfield, and Montgomery counties about similar practices. When the problem was brought to the courts' attention, they changed their policies and immediately released the incarcerated men. Although Berks County did agree to provide counsel at contempt hearings beginning in July 2009, the court has refused to release anyone already incarcerated.
Today's lawsuit, Cepeda, et al. v. Court of Common Pleas for the County of Berks, was filed in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Attorneys on the case are Roper, Harvey and Frank Griffin IV from the law firm of Pepper Hamilton LLP. The complaint is available at: www.aclupa.org/berks