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Public defender's rising caseload costing Hall County taxpayers

Gerry Piccolo gets animated as he speaks to the Hall County Board about his rising case load (NTV News)

A rise in crime costs taxpayers in Hall County, where the public defender turns away cases as numbers climb.

Gerry Piccolo explained the situation to the County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. He said the five attorneys in his office, including him, will handle around 1,700 cases in 2017.

Some board members wonder if part of the problem the lack of screening, for those who receive court-appointed attorneys.

Supervisor Scott Arnold said, “I think to do something is imperative so somebody knows they are being checked on and it's not just a free for all for whoever wants a public defender.”

Piccolo said by law, the public defender can’t ask clients about their finances.

Clerk of the District Court Valorie Bendixen said judges and other court staffers they don’t have time to check.

Arnold’s suggestion is to require defendants to pay at least a small fee, but he admits that raises constitutional concerns.

“Courts are very reluctant to allow that, because they don't want to discourage someone from their right to having an attorney represent them,” he said.

The five public defenders on staff are maxed out; Their case loads are higher than the national standards.

Piccolo says without at least one more attorney, he will continue to turn down every third case that comes his way.

“The excess cases are farmed out to the legal community,” he explained.

It all adds up to more than a million dollars in attorney’s fees, as judges appoint private attorneys in those cases.

Piccolo said, “I don't want the board to be surprised by the number of claims for attorney's fees that come in. As I mentioned to the board, it's their decision to make as to how to handle it.”

Piccolo sees three options.

First, they could continue to appoint attorneys for the cases he turns now, or another idea would be to have firms bid to provide service. Finally, they could simply keep paying on a case by case basis. Piccolo said the going rate is $100 an hour.

The decision is up to the county board, as they balance finances and fairness.

Scott Arnold said, “We put a high value on our rights to be represented and there is a cost to that.”

Clerk of the District Court Valorie Bendixen said criminal cases made up 33% of filings in 2012 but this year, that has climbed to 44% of her office’s workload. She said that requires more paper and toner cartridges. However, she added that the number of jury trials has declined.

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