Does the Right to an Attorney Mean the Right to One Nearby?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on May 10, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

New Orleans announced plans to relocate 600 inmates from its troubled city jail this week, sending them to prisons far from the city. For those inmates still awaiting trial or appealing their convictions, this means far from their legal counsel, not to mention family and support systems.

While the Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to an attorney, does that mean your attorney has to be close by?

The Trouble With New Orleans

The Orleans Justice Center just opened last September, but has faced accusations of mismanagement ever since. Sheriff Marlin Gusman has ordered all but 533 of New Orleans' 1,583 inmates to be relocated outside the city, ostensibly in an effort to properly train staff.

The move will make it nearly impossible for some attorneys to adequately represent their clients. Many of the 600 have not been tried nor convicted, and are simply awaiting trial. Derwyn Bunton, the city's chief public defender, complained after similar transfers last year: "For us, an office already struggling with resources, to impose this kind of strain is just something we would never have agreed to. The system can expect delays, because, constitutionally, we're going to have to maintain contact with our clients."

Those courtroom delays and case continuances were already pooping up, and even judges were complaining about the lack of access to inmates, according to The Times-Picayune. And the problem isn't just that inmates can't see an attorney they've been assigned -- PBS is reporting that there is now a waitlist just to get a public defender, ballooning to 142 defendants.

The Trouble With the Sixth Amendment

The Sixth Amendment guarantees the assistance of legal counsel in all criminal prosecutions. But the right to counsel is limited to what are determined to be critical stages of criminal proceedings: custodial interrogation, post-indictment lineups, preliminary hearings, arraignment, trial, sentencing, and the first appeal of conviction. Courts have yet to mandate a certain amount of time that criminal defendants must get with attorneys, and normally limit determinations regarding counsel's effectiveness to trial proceedings.

For his part, Gusman accused the inmate transfer critics (including) federal prosecutors and the Department of Justice) of overstating the move's impact. "They're crying wolf," he said in reference to the public defender's office. "In today's technology they can communicate whatever, however they want with their clients." We hope he's not referring to recorded jailhouse phone calls.

If you need an attorney, or are having trouble keeping in contact with a previously assigned attorney, you may want to use our local lawyer directory.

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