After spending just one year as the sole public defender in a rural Utah county, David Van Dyke did not renew his contract.
YES ON SIX: David's Story
The experience reshaped how he thought about the need for a vigorous public defender system, as he learned first-hand that Utah’s public defense system left too much to be desired.
“When I was in law school I said I would never do criminal defense work. I figured in most cases, those charged were guilty and deserved punishment. However, over time I came to realize that in many situations, the constitutional rights of these individuals were being trampled. Many of the rights we have and take for granted are a result of attorneys defending alleged criminals. I decided a person’s constitutional rights should not be violated simply because they were involved in an alleged crime.”
David and his family moved to Wayne County in 2004, where he is one of just a few practicing attorneys living full time in the area (Wayne County is the fourth least populous county in Utah, according to 2014 Census data).
He is a graduate of the University of Utah law school, and practiced civil law for many years in various industries, before signing up to represent Wayne County’s indigent clients in 2015.
Despite the unique challenges of being a rural public defender David really liked the work. “I wanted to try and make a difference, and not just offer deals or pleas,” he says. “I think you should really fight for your client.”
As part of his flat-fee contract, Dave was paid $600 a month to handle every criminal defense case in the county – juvenile cases, justice court cases, and criminal cases in the district court for adult defendants. When he took the job, he calculated, based on some historical data, that he’d probably be paid about $400 per case. There would be no extra funding for overhead expenses. Should he need to hire experts or investigators, he would have to submit his requests directly to the county prosecutor (his legal opponent in every case).
“At a normal billing rate for an attorney in Salt Lake City, that would cover about one-and-a-half hours of work,” reflects Dave. “I spend at least a couple of hours on any case, just making a first appearance, looking at the discovery, and getting to know the case.”
Throughout his time as a public defender, he had to maintain his own private legal practice to make ends meet. Sometimes, he spent his own money to ensure a reasonable defense could be mounted on behalf of his clients. He paid out of his own pocket for several pre-sentence reports by an outside expert because he felt it was necessary for a case.
He truly enjoyed the work, and feels proud of what he was able to accomplish for his clients. Nonetheless, he was troubled by the lack of resources.
In particular, David was struck by his experience with a high-profile juvenile homicide case that hit his desk toward the end of his year-long contract. Acknowledging that he did not have a great deal of experience in with juvenile defense, David consulted juvenile defenders in Salt Lake County for advice, which they freely gave. He was so impressed with their knowledge of the process for certifying a juvenile as an adult, that he asked Wayne County for additional money to hire them as advisors and experts for the certification process.
“The County said no, outright. I had to do the certification hearing without the additional support. The County did agree to pay for an expert to prepare a pre-certification report which was definitely beneficial. However, I had to spend a significant amount of time researching and preparing for the certification hearing. To the County’s credit, they did pay my bill – which I significantly discounted – associated with the work done after my contract was not renewed.”
When David’s contract expired, he handed the case off to a new public defender. He hopes the young man will receive the aggressive defense David felt is deserved.
But after holding the public defender contract for just one year, David concluded that he simply couldn’t work with such limited support and resources. The cases were too important and he could not justify putting his paying clients on the backburner for his public defense clients.
Currently, with his paying clients, he can afford to hire private investigators and make sure all the right people get interviewed. He can even hire additional consultants to assist as may be needed. He feels confident he is able to provide the vigorous defense his clients deserve – without breaking his own bank account.
David worries that indigent clients in rural counties like Wayne County aren’t getting the defense they deserve, and thinks that the new statewide Indigent Defense Commission should provide funds for advisory attorneys to provide support and advice to rural public defenders.
“I’ve been watching things in other counties and I’ve been disturbed. I know all the public defenders feel overworked, but a lot of them are accepting contracts that are just terrible. They take issue with the pay, but keep doing it – in most cases because they believe the indigent need a defense. However, it seems that most people aren’t getting the defense they deserve due to the lack of resources.”
Stay tuned for additional stories and perspectives as part of YES ON SIX, the ACLU of Utah’s ongoing push to realize the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of legal counsel to all Utahns!