Legal help too slow in Texas arrest, high court says

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A man whose life was turned upside-down by a wrongful arrest and weeks in jail should have been given access to a lawyer sooner so he could have shown the arrest was erroneous, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Monday.

The high court ruled 8-1 in favor of Walter Rothgery. In 2004, three weeks after he arrived from Arizona to take a job managing an RV park in Gillespie County, Rothgery was arrested for carrying a gun as a convicted felon. No lawyer was provided at his first court hearing and his wife used their last $500 for bail.

The arrest was based on a mistake in a computer database that showed he was a felon, which left him unable to find a full-time job. By the time he was indicted six months later, he was broke, his bond had tripled and he was sent back to a county jail 100 miles from his home.

A sympathetic warden helped Rothgery find an attorney to obtain documentation showing he had no felony record. He was released and the weapons charge finally was dropped.

Rothgery sued Gillespie County for violating his constitutional right to counsel. When a federal court and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the case, his attorneys went to the Supreme Court. The ruling Monday returns his lawsuit to the lower courts.

"Texas really is part of America now," Rothgery, 57, told The Associated Press on Monday from Llano, where he works in an equipment rental store. "I am fairly pleased. I was trying to keep an even keel. It got harder as we got to the end of June.

"Now I can let it loose. Before I was trying to hold back and try not get my hopes too high."

Rothgery's lawyers argued Texas should provide a defense lawyer for indigent clients once they've made a first appearance before a magistrate, even if no prosecutor was present.

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