Thousands of arrest warrants have been recalled by county magistrates and municipal judges across the state after South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty issued new instructions to local magistrates.
On September 15, 2017, Beatty issued a memo to summary courts, which include county magistrates and municipal judges, “decrying reported violations of the right to counsel. He said any defendants who couldn’t be provided with a lawyer can only be fined, not jailed. The same directive applied to anyone convicted while absent at trial if they hadn’t already been informed of their rights.” In the memo, he acknowledged that the courts face constraints “but these principles of due process to all defendants who come before you cannot be abridged.”
During a mandatory training session for lower court judges on November 1, 2017, Beatty reminded judges that criminal defendants in their courtrooms have rights and provided more detailed instructions in the form of a 12-page outline. Specifically, the Chief Justice spoke again about the Sixth Amendment, which requires that criminal defendants facing jail time have the right to a lawyer. Beatty also addressed trial practices, reminding judges that even when a defendant is not present for trial, evidence is still required for conviction.
But what sent some magistrates right to the telephones to cancel their warrants was a warning from Beatty: violating a defendant’s constitutional rights is an offense that has consequences.
Charleston County Chief Magistrate Leroy Linen told The Post and Courier that he instructed his lower court judges to recall all bench warrants until further notice. Linen said that the Chief Justice’s instructions were timely, as courts statewide have a long history of sending criminal defendants to jail without evidence. “There is so much collateral damage from jailing them,” Linen said. “We have been doing this practice all over the state, and nobody was saying anything. . . . (The chief justice) was trying to impress upon everyone that we must … give people their due process rights.”
Not everyone is pleased with Beatty’s instructions. Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon told The Post and Courier that there could be unforeseen consequences of disrupting the bench warrant system. “Some of these cases may also have victims, and they will have to be notified,” Cannon said.
He also pointed out that warrants are a routine way to ensure that defendants show up for their court date and thus aid the efficiency of the courts. But that is the problem—the institutionalized violation of people’s constitutional rights has become a matter of routine in the state. Court efficiency cannot and does not justify violating defendants’ constitutional rights.
The fact that courts across the state took immediate steps to cancel thousands of warrants in the wake of Beatty’s instructions is an indicator of the systemic problem in the state. Recent studies by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the ACLU have brought these issues to light. As such, said ACLU attorney Susan Dunn, nothing in the Chief Justice’s mandate should come as a surprise. “He’s just trying to bring these courts in line with existing law,” Dunn said. “But even then, he has an uphill battle.”
Folly Beach Chief Municipal Judge Bentley Price told The Post and Courier that some judges were talking about how Beatty’s directive would negatively affect their city’s bottom line. But for Price, who canceled nearly 300 warrants that day, the issue was clear. “He’s the chief; he’s the boss,” Dunn said of Beatty. “It was very simple for me. I was astonished why the other judges were second guessing him.”