Placer County’s D.A. and Public Defender’s Offices — Explained

PUBLISHED JUN 9, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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The district attorney and public defender are at the heart of Placer County's criminal justice system.

The district attorney and public defender are at the heart of Placer County's criminal justice system.   J. Smith / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. Unported License

Placer County is not exactly a crime-ridden place. Based on violent crime data from across the United States, the county of approximately 400,000 people ranks squarely in the middle — the 49th percentile. That means 51 percent of U.S. counties have worse crime rates, while 49 percent are safer, at least when it comes to violent crime. Overall, Placer County in 2019 suffered just 151.2 violent crimes for every 100,000 people. Compared to the rest of California, however, Placer County is, well, placid when it comes to violent crime. The entire state saw 437.9 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, according to the state’s Justice Department data.

But reasonably low crime is a long way from zero crime, and there are costs associated with both containing crime and ensuring that those accused of crimes receive justice. All accused criminal offenders in Placer County are entitled to be represented by a lawyer, whether they can afford one or not, as are all criminal defendants in the United States, as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. In Placer County that lawyer is Dan Koukol of Auburn, whose private law firm contracted to provide public defender services to indigent defendants in the county’s criminal court system.

In most California counties, the public defender is a public employee, as are all of the lawyers who work in the PD’s office. But 19 of the state’s 58 counties contract with private firms who then serve as the public defender’s office. (As of 2022, Santa Cruz County will institute its own public defender’s office, reducing that number to 18.)  Since 1971, Placer has been one of those counties. 

And since September of 2016, Koukol’s law office, which now has 28 attorneys, has held the contract to provide legal representation to defendants in Placer County who cannot afford to hire their own lawyers.

The four-year contract was renewed in June, 2020, paying Koukol’s firm $32,012,000 over the four year term of the contract. The county also contracts with two other private sector law firms to provide additional public defender services in cases where the primary public defender has a conflict of interest. Typically, conflicts arise in cases involving multiple defendants. The primary public defender’s office is not permitted to represent more than one of the defendants, meaning that a lawyer from another firm must take up the representation for the second defendant.

California Activates the Constitution

Though the U.S. Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to legal representation, no established system existed in the United States for providing that service until the early 20th century. The idea of a “public defender,” a defense lawyer whose fees were paid out of public funds, actually originated in California. Clara Foltz, who also happened to be the first woman licensed to practice law in California, came up with the idea of a government-funded “defense office” in 1893.

Foltz’s idea took another two decades to catch on, however. It wasn’t until 1913 that Los Angeles County established the country’s first “defense office.” Another 50 years would pass before the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case Gideon v. Wainwright, solidified the Constitutional guarantee of representation, and decided that without a lawyer, no defendant could be said to receive a “fair trial.” At the time of that decision, 1963, most states already guaranteed criminal defendants the right to counsel in felony cases. But 15 did not, a situation that was forced to change by the Gideon decision.

Here’s How it Works

How do you get a public defender if you’re accused of a crime, and can’t pay for your own lawyer? Simple. At an accused offender’s arraignment, generally the first court appearance after being arrested for a crime, a judge makes the determination as to whether that person is truly indigent — that is, too broke to afford an attorney — and if the answer is yes, the judge assigns a lawyer from the public defender’s office to take the case.

At that point, another lawyer enters the case — the District Attorney. Or, more likely, one of the 44 lawyers who work for the D.A. in Placer County. Criminal cases then become adversarial contests between the public defender and the D.A. In Placer County, as of April 2020, the D.A. is Morgan Briggs Gire, a Placer County native (he grew up in Loomis) who previously spent 15 years in the Sacramento County D.A.’s  office, rising to the position of assistant chief deputy district attorney.

Controversial Appointments

The D.A. is not only a public employee, the position is an elected one. Gire, however, was appointed. Until 2023, he’ll fill out the term of former D.A. Scott Owens, who had served in the post since 2010 but retired suddenly in December of 2019, just one year into the new term he won in the 2018 election. Owens apparently planned to hand the job over to his top deputy Jeff Wilson, who was named interim D.A., as well as the seeming frontrunner to win appointment from the Board of Supervisors. 

But Wilson proved a controversial pick, to say the least. Barely two months after taking over as interim D.A., Wilson was placed on “administrative leave” by the county, with no explanation other than that the supervisors “just kind of felt it was easier to have Jeff step away as we narrow down the pool,” according to County Executive Todd Leopold, as quoted by Sacramento Bee reporter Sam Stanton.

Less than a month later, the board picked Gire to helm the D.A.’s office. But if he wants to stay in the position past the end of 2022, he will need to run for and win the office in that year’s election.

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