Couple sues after Colorado public defender declines to take their cases due to assets

·3 min read

A couple is suing the Colorado State Public Defender's Office for declining to represent them in their Larimer County criminal cases because the office says the couple has too much money.

The Wyoming pair, who are in their 60s, make less than $2,000 combined annually, according to the lawsuit. That should automatically qualify them for court-appointed representation, according to state law.

The public defender's office claimed the couple's assets were enough to disqualify them: They own property in Colorado and Wyoming and two vehicles, with no debt and more than $100,000 in savings, according to court records.

Judge Laurie Dean denied the couple's applications for court-appointed counsel in a May court order after receiving information from the public defender's office that the couple doesn't qualify.

The two each face felony charges that carry possible sentences of 10 to 32 years in prison if convicted. The Coloradoan has not named the couple or their specific charges because it does not plan on following their criminal cases to their conclusions.

The couple faces "imminent, profound, and irreparable harm" if they're forced to go to a trial in these cases without representation, the lawsuit says.

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When a person out of custody applies for free court-appointed representation, their income is reviewed. If their income is below the set income — $21,775 for a two-person household — they automatically qualify. If their income exceeds that, then their entire financial situation is considered, including assets and savings.

The couple should have automatically qualified for court-appointed counsel according to their annual income, according to the lawsuit. Even when the couple's entire financial situation was considered in the state's rubric calculation to determine eligibility, the couple "plainly qualified" for court-appointed representation, according to the lawsuit.

"I think it’s impossible to just take an application and run it through a rubric like you’re talking about and come out with some predetermined, you know, conclusion," public defender Eric Vanatta said during an April court hearing in the criminal case, according to court records. "And so in this situation, we looked at their assets, we looked at the amount of cash they have on hand, the fact they own two different properties in two different states, the value of those properties, and came to the conclusion that based on those numbers they’re just simply not indigent."

The public defender's office decision to deny them representation shows they “were treated differently from the similarly situated criminal defendants who apply for appointment of counsel” because they were denied based on their assets," according to the lawsuit.

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The state public defender's office does not keep records on how many applicants are denied representation based on their assets, according to court documents.

Attorneys representing the couple and the public defenders office did not respond to requests for comment as of Wednesday afternoon.

During a hearing in the criminal cases Nov. 22, Dean expressed concern about moving forward in their criminal cases while waiting for the civil case to resolve. The criminal cases are currently set for a dual jury trial to begin in mid-December.

"We're all in a difficult position," Dean said.

The next hearing in the civil case is scheduled for Monday. Dean said she hopes that hearing will provide more direction for how they will be able to proceed in the criminal case.

All suspects are innocent until proven guilty in court. Arrests and charges are merely accusations by law enforcement until, and unless, a suspect is convicted of a crime.

Sady Swanson covers public safety, criminal justice, Larimer County government and more throughout Northern Colorado. You can send your story ideas to her at sswanson@coloradoan.com or on Twitter at @sadyswan. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.

This article originally appeared on Fort Collins Coloradoan: Colorado public defender declines to take couple's cases, citing assets