Indigency standards bill fails in Wyoming legislative committee

CHEYENNE – A draft bill that would have proposed indigency standards to qualify for a public defender failed Thursday afternoon in the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Interim Committee.

This issue was carried over from the last committee meeting in August. The proposed bill would have aligned indigency standards with 125 percent of the federal poverty level.

In every state except Alaska and Hawaii, 125 percent of the federal poverty level would be about $15,600 for a single-person household.

Lawmakers who voted in favor of the bill were Sen. Liisa Anselmi-Dalton, D-Rock Springs; Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas; Sen. R.J. Kost, R-Powell; Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne; Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette; Rep. Sara Burlingame, D-Cheyenne; Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan; Rep. Bill Pownall, R-Gillette, and Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs.

Lawmakers who voted against the bill were Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper; Rep. Tim Salazar, R-Riverton; Rep. Art Washut, R-Casper, and Rep. Dan Kirkbride, R-Chugwater.

Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, was excused for this portion of the meeting.

The draft bill failed to pass because it didn’t gain support from a majority of representatives on the committee.

Currently, there are no income guidelines in Wyoming to determine public defender eligibility. To apply for a public defender, a person must fill out a financial affidavit that needs to be approved by a circuit court judge.

Other than the judge, there are no other official vetting processes to make sure people are honest in their financial affidavits. 

Committee Co-Chairwoman Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, said she personally knows of someone who makes more than $100,000 who has public defender representation. State Public Defender Diane Lozano has also shared similar stories in the past.

Lozano said this bill was a step in the right direction, but she still had a few concerns. She said drawing a firm line with indigency standards, such as the 125 of the federal poverty level, doesn’t consider the complexities of the crime and cost of representation.

For instance, if someone is at 126 percent of the federal poverty level and charged with murder, he could be facing a $50,000 attorney bill that he can’t afford, she said.

“I do think you have to give leeway in the right to counsel. The law in Wyoming is if there’s any question if someone qualifies, you give them a lawyer,” she said.

But the appointment of the public defender has almost become a rubber stamp in most cases, Lozano said, adding she understands judges are busy.

Laramie County District Judge Thomas Campbell said he does question people’s affidavits when they appear before him, especially if someone puts a zero or “N/A” on their affidavit. He said there are instances where he, and other judges, send affidavits back to the defendants because they weren’t filled out correctly.

Lozano also wondered who would be responsible for vetting the indigency standards, and whether it would be the courts, prosecutors, public defender’s office or a different agency.

Nethercott told Lozano that it certainly is an issue to be discussed, but that wasn’t the proposed purpose of this bill. Nethercott said she anticipates this conversation will continue into next year’s legislative session.