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News >  Crime/Public Safety

With caseloads maxed out, no public defenders available for Yakima armed robbery suspect

Nov. 30, 2022 Updated Wed., Nov. 30, 2022 at 7:13 p.m.

By Donald W. Meyers Yakima Herald-Republic

YAKIMA – A Yakima man is scheduled to be arraigned Friday on charges that he robbed a West Mead Avenue check-cashing store at gunpoint.

That is, if he can get a lawyer by then.

Yakima County Department of Assigned Counsel filed notice in Yakima County Superior Court Nov. 23 that it cannot assign Marco Antonio Rivera an attorney at that time as all the county’s public defenders are operating at their mandated maximum caseloads.

Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic said Rivera could be assigned an attorney before Friday’s hearing, as Thursday marks the start of a new month. But if not, he said the arraignment would be postponed until Rivera has a court-appointed attorney representing him.

Rivera, 23, is charged with first-degree robbery in connection with the Nov. 13 robbery of Unimex, 102 W. Mead Ave.

The county’s chief public defender said Rivera should have an attorney for next week, but Rivera’s situation is part of an ongoing problem with a shortage of attorneys.

Prosecutors say Rivera entered the business that cashes checks and wires funds around 1:10 p.m., donned a mask, pointed a gun at the store’s owner and demanded all the money. He then ran from the store with $12,000, according to court documents.

Police were able to identify the getaway vehicle through security video and the Yakima Police Department’s license plate recognition system, the documents said. After questioning the vehicle’s driver, whom police determined was not involved in the robbery, they were able to identify Rivera as the suspect and later arrested him at the Motel 6 on Staff Sgt. Pendleton Way, court documents said.

He is being held in lieu of $50,000 bail.

Arraignment hearings, set two weeks after the first court appearance, are where the defendant formally enters a plea to the charges in court, and a trial date is set. By law, a defendant held in custody must be brought to trial within 60 days of the arraignment.

If they are out of custody, then the trial date is set for 90 days.

Public defenders are capped at 150 cases per attorney to ensure that they can effectively represent their clients.

Paul Kelley, director of the assigned counsel department, said that number is weighted, with more serious felonies counting for more than one case in the calculation. In an earlier interview, Kelley said his office is dealing with an attorney shortage with the office short of its full complement of 12 attorneys.

Also, Yakima County prosecutors file more than 2,000 felony cases a year.

Kelley, in an interview Wednesday, said the county has bolstered pay for both in-house public defenders and prosecutors, but there is still a shortage of qualified attorneys.

“There aren’t enough attorneys to meet the needs and replace the retiring attorneys,” Kelley said.

Brusic said if the caseload for the public defenders doesn’t drop enough at the start of December to allow Rivera to get an attorney, the arraignment will be continued until an attorney is appointed, and at that time the arraignment will be postdated back to the original Dec. 2 date.

But that means the trial countdown will also start from Dec. 2, and Brusic said it is unlikely that a case would be ready to go to trial by that time.

While a defendant can waive their right to a speedy trial to allow their attorney time to prepare, Brusic said a defendant can also refuse, putting their attorney in the position of going to court ill prepared to defend their client.

In that scenario, Brusic said an appellate court could overturn a conviction because the defense attorney was ineffective.

It also puts prosecutors in a similar position, and Brusic has warned his staff about that.

“I’ve made it clear to my prosecutors that they have to be ready to go to trial,” Brusic said.

Kelley said Rivera will have an attorney next week. In this situation, Kelley said his office assigns cases in the order they come in, regardless of the charge.

Asking for delays is also problematic, as the Spokane-based Division III Court of Appeals overturned a man’s conviction in a Yakima rape case because the man’s right to a speedy trial was violated by delays processing evidence at the state crime lab.

Brusic said that ruling weighs on prosecutors when they ask for a delay in a trial.

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