Hundreds of Portland-area felony cases dismissed over public defender staffing shortages

Multnomah County's district attorney called the dismissal of cases 'horrific'

A shortage of public defenders in Oregon's Multnomah County, where Portland is located, spurred local judges to dismiss more than 200 felony cases since February, some of which involved alleged beatings of children and other violent attacks, a new analysis shows. 

"The purpose of the court system is to get people the help they need," Tri-Met bus driver Chris Day told Oregon Live. "And if they’re not getting the help, things are just going to get worse."

Day said he was maced earlier this year by a bus passenger after he refused to drop her off a half-block before her stop. It was the third time he was attacked by a passenger while on the job, he told the media shortly after the February incident. Day’s case is among the dozens that were dismissed by judges this year. 

"It’s unbearable," Day said. "How can I describe it? You don’t know when the next attack is going to come. And you don’t feel protected."

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"You don’t know when the next attack is going to come. And you don’t feel protected," said Tri-Met bus driver Chris Day.

"You don’t know when the next attack is going to come. And you don’t feel protected," said Tri-Met bus driver Chris Day. (iStock)

Oregon Live published a report this week that examined a list of 220 defendants accused of felonies and 75 accused of misdemeanors that were dismissed in the county by judges since February due to a lack of public defenders. 

The outlet noted that most cases involved accusations of car thefts, people fleeing the police or illegal possession of firearms. However, other cases involved "person crimes," where suspects were charged with beating, assaulting or threatening a victim in the county. 

Portland Police Department patrol vehicle

Portland Police Department patrol vehicle (Portland Police Department)

Among the cases dismissed was one in which an 11-year-old girl, who was visibly swollen, told police she did not want to go home because her mother allegedly beat her, and another where a real estate agent was left with seven broken bones and a collapsed lung after being hit by an alleged drunken driver. The real estate agent was forced to retire early after the accident, Oregon Live reported. 

An American Bar Association report released in January found that Oregon has only 31% of the public defenders it needs to run effectively. Every existing attorney would have to work more than 26 hours a day during the work week to cover the caseload, the report said.

Oregon’s public defense system is unique in that it is the only one in the country to rely entirely on contractors. Cases are given to either large nonprofit defense firms, small cooperating groups of private defense attorneys that contract for cases, or independent attorneys who can take cases at will.

Mike Schmidt, Multnomah County district attorney, speaks to the media at City Hall on Aug. 30, 2020 in Portland, Oregon.

Mike Schmidt, Multnomah County district attorney, speaks to the media at City Hall on Aug. 30, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

Democratic Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt made the unprecedented move last month to release all cases in the county dismissed by judges to highlight to the public the "urgent threat" the public defense staffing crisis poses to safety.  

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"This sends a message to crime victims in our community that justice is unavailable, and their harm will go unaddressed," Schmidt said in a statement last month. "It also sends a message to individuals who have committed a crime that there is no accountability while burning through scarce police and prosecutor resources."

"He wants people to understand how big a deal this is," Elisabeth Shepard, a spokesperson for Schmidt’s office, added at the time. 

Schmidt told Oregon Live this week that he understands judges’ hands are tied on dismissing cases, but called the matter "horrific."

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"It’s horrific. My attorneys are trying to explain this to a victim. It’s like, ‘Hey, sorry, your case was dismissed because the defendant didn’t have a lawyer.’ Where are the victim’s rights in that?… We are having to have a lot of awful conversations with people," he told the outlet.

The downtown skyline and the Broadway Bridge are viewed in the early morning on Feb. 11, 2012, in Portland, Oregon.

The downtown skyline and the Broadway Bridge are viewed in the early morning on Feb. 11, 2012, in Portland, Oregon. (George Rose/Getty Images)

Schmidt added that he’ll refile charges if the public defender shortages resolve, but would have to do so before the statute of limitations for felonies ends such a plan. 

The executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services previously told The Associated Press that she will work with Schmidt "to address this systemic access to justice emergency."

Fox News Digital reached out to the office Monday morning for additional comment, but did not immediately receive a reply. 

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Oregon Live noted that Multnomah County is not alone on public defender shortages, finding that 10 out of 36 counties in Oregon are experiencing similar staffing issues. 

The Associated Press contributed to this article.