Category Archives: ethics

A Founding Father of incompetence

This is Thomas Jefferson:

BIO_Mini-Bios_0_Thomas-Jefferson_151078_SF_HD_768x432-16x9This is Dennis Hawver, dressed at Thomas Jefferson, surrounded by people who are inexplicably not laughing their asses off at him:

Hawver-Jefferson

Hawver, a Republican and Libertarian once ran for Governor of Kansas and then attorney general and also for Congress.

Needless to say, he failed in his quest for any office.

Perhaps in keeping with his Jeffersonian obsession, he was also a criminal defense attorney. He also failed at that – and spectacularly so – but this time he wasn’t the only one who lost. His client, facing the death penalty, was duly sentenced to death, because perhaps Hawver hadn’t grasped the fact that dressing like Jefferson doesn’t mean anything if you didn’t stand for his principles either:

At trial, Hawver described his client, Phillip Cheatham Jr., as a “professional drug dealer” and a “shooter of people,” according to findings of fact cited by the state supreme court. During the sentencing phase of the trial, he said the killer should be executed. “I had a single mitigator to offer the jury in sentencing,” Hawver said in an affidavit, “and that was my argument that my client was innocent.”

Hawver didn’t investigate alibi witnesses and didn’t track his client’s cellphone to find his location at the time of the murders, the court said.

As a defense lawyer, defending his client against the death penalty, there is generally one unbreakable rule: don’t tell the jury to execute your client.

Hawver also told jurors that they should execute the killer in his closing argument.

Oh. To be fair, this might have had something to do with his unusual tactics:

Hawver had never previously tried a capital murder case and had not tried a murder case in more than 20 years, according to the opinion. He was unfamiliar with ABA guidelines for trying capital murder cases.

And when I say a spectacular failure, I mean spectacular:

Hawver had said he had no funds for a pretrial investigation and he didn’t call the indigent defense board to explore whether funding was available to support his representation. He also said he didn’t recall whether a board representative had called him with an offer to provide co-counsel, investigators, consultants and expert witnesses, but he doesn’t contest that an offer of funding was made.

During the arguments, Hawver identifies Jefferson as his hero and says he wore the outfit because he had a constitutional right to represent the client “as directed, instructed and agreed” by the client, “no matter what the ABA guidelines have to say.”

Hawver explained to the Kansas Supreme Court why he didn’t get cellphone records for an alibi defense. “I had no idea that cellphones had GPS capabilities at that time,” he said. “Did you? I didn’t. If I had known it, I’d have been on it like a dog on a bone.”

Thankfully, in 2013, the Kansas Supreme Court reversed Cheatham’s conviction and just last week, spared any other individual of having to be represented by a Jefferson clone by disbarring Hawver.

The fact that Hawver showed up to the disbarment argument in Jefferson garb might have had something to do with it (A good shot of his attire is at five minutes and 17 seconds; his argument begins at 22 minutes and 38 seconds.):

 

Dispensing with the sham: prosecutors serving as judges

manyhats-1

A judge usually wears many hats: jurist, prosecutor, defense attorney. A judge has to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a case in pre-trial negotiations, make offers, impose just sentences, etc.

Prosecutors usually end up being judges once they advance far enough in their careers and have schmoozed the right politicians.

Some prosecutors remain prosecutors even after they take the bench and Missouri is ensuring that they get ample practice in maintaining their bent1.

Neil Bruntrager, general counsel for the St. Louis Police Officer’s Association, works part time as a judge where police officers from county jurisdictions sometimes testify against defendants.  “There has never been a conflict. If there was I would remove myself,” Bruntrager said. “If anything, being a defense attorney makes me more sympathetic as a judge in terms of scrutinizing the evidence.”

St. Louis County and the Circuit Attorney’s offices both have full time prosecutors that are allowed to work part time as municipal judges. While prosecutors can do it, state law says public defenders cannot.

Here, have a look at how ridiculous it can get:

Attorney Ronald Brockmeyer works as a St. Charles divorce and criminal defense lawyer during the day, but by night he works part time prosecuting traffic violators in Dellwood. He also works part time as a judge in nearby Breckenridge Hills.

“I don’t think that’s a conflict at all,” Brockmeyer said. “Not at all.”

Brockmeyer makes $600 a session and isn’t alone in wearing multiple hats.

I’m the judge in Ferguson, a judge in Breckenridge Hills, a prosecutor in Florissant, a prosecutor in Vinita Park, and prosecutor here in Dellwood,” he said.

The defense attorney is a prosecutor and a judge and a prosecutor is always a prosecutor and a judge but never a defense attorney and a lawyer for cops is a prosecutor and a judge but never a defense attorney and public defenders are always defense attorneys but never judges and defendants are always screwed.

Justice.


Yet another example of unsanctioned prosecutorial misconduct

I wrote last week about the double standard in sanctioning defense attorneys while scores of prosecutors nationwide engage in deliberate and willful misconduct that deprives individuals of their Constitutional rights without any consequences whatsoever.

A helpful reader sent me a link to this CT Supreme Court opinion from 2012 that I’d missed, as a further example. In this case, the defense argued that in order to convict him of aggravated sexual assault and aggravated kidnapping (both require the use of a firearm), the jury must be instructed that he actually possessed such firearm. The operative language of both statutes is similar and it is this:

(1) such person uses or is armed with and threatens the use of or displays or represents by such person’s words or conduct that such person possesses a deadly weapon

The reason for this argument is that it is an affirmative defense that the weapon was inoperable. Thus, it would make no sense for the affirmative defense to be applied to someone who had an inoperable gun, but unavailable to someone who had no gun at all.

The Court agreed with the prosecution that the defense had not preserved this argument and thus declined to consider it. And then it dropped this footnote:

[W]e feel compelled to note that in the section of her appellate brief addressing this issue the state’s appellate counsel, Assistant State’s Attorney Melissa L. Streeto, purported to provide quotations of §§ 53a-70a (a)(1) and 53a-92a but inserted commas supporting her statutory construction without any indication that alterations had been made.

In response to questions at oral argument regarding the accuracy of these quotations, she explained, in justification of the improper insertions, that “I put those there because that is how the statute should be read.

No matter how a statute should be read, it is for the legislature—and not counsel—to determine how the statute should be written. We strongly disapprove of the tactic employed here, which was at the very least misleading, and we remind counsel that they are obligated to indicate, through the use of brackets or explanatory parentheticals or otherwise, any modification to quoted materials.

Contrary to Assistant State’s Attorney Streeto’s suggestion at oral argument, and notwithstanding her apology for misleading the court, this obligation is not met by including unmodified copies of the relevant texts in an appendix.

A prosecutor, in reproducing something as basic as the text of a statute – something that everyone has free access to – which she must’ve known the parties would be familiar with, decided to pass off as accurate her own interpretation of the statute.

Then, upon being questioned, had the hubris to state “that’s how the statute should be read”.

This is what happens when prosecutors are allowed to run rampant without any oversight. Once again, I’m fairly certain, despite the Supreme Court’s concern and strong disapproval of this “tactic” that was “at the very least misleading”, she was not punished or reprimanded, let alone referred to the grievance committee.

When prosecutors apologize, everything is okay, because they didn’t really mean to deprive you of your Constitutional rights. After all, they’re in it for justice.

A double standard in prosecutorial misconduct

Last week, in a Connecticut courtroom, something unprecedented happened: after a jury returned a guilty verdict in a trial, the judge, from the bench, suspended the defense lawyer for 20 days from the practice of law, for twice-violating a court order.

The lawyer is long-time New Haven attorney John Williams, who is a former law partner of Norm Pattis, so I’ll refer you to Norm for a defense of Attorney Williams.

Apparently, Williams’ client was tried in Federal court for the same offense and acquitted and then returned to State court for another trial. The judge ruled that the acquittal could not be entered into evidence and the jury could not be told about it.

Twice, Williams slipped up and mentioned the acquittal – once during cross-examination and once during closing arguments. After the verdict the judge announced his: a suspension for 20 days1.

Some lawyers in CT are also mandated reporters

That's your constitution in the middle, getting fucked over.

That’s your constitution in the middle, getting screwed over.

I wrote yesterday about the CT legislature failing to enact an exemption to the mandatory reporting statute for social workers employed by defense attorneys and the problems attendant to that.

In that post, I glibly noted that the legislature hasn’t yet made lawyers mandated reporters – and I was wrong.

In the public act that was just enacted, PA 14-186, the definitions of mandated reporters were “clarified” and some others were added to the list. This, surprisingly, now includes the following:

(14) any paid administrator, faculty, staff, athletic director, athletic coach or athletic trainer employed by a public or private institution of higher education who is eighteen years of age or older, excluding student employees.

The bold portion is the relevant portion. This would, generally speaking, include every professor or adjunct professor at a college, university or graduate school.

What is a graduate school? A law school. So faculty at a law school – also called law professors – are thereby included on this list. But that doesn’t seem to be the end of it. Any paid faculty encompasses the myriad adjunct professors who are full-time lawyers, but also dabble in teaching students on the side.

What makes it worse is that every law school in Connecticut has several clinical programs that deal exclusively with the representation of poor and disenfranchised people: the criminal trial clinic at UCONN, the appellate clinics at UCONN and Quinnipiac, the immigration and prisoner rights clinic at Yale, among many others1.

All of these clinics employ lawyers as professors who are responsible for representing these clients in real, actual courts and they supervise students for whom they are also responsible. They also employ full-time public defenders as adjunct faculty. Some also employ judges.

Law school clinics are a great teaching environment for lawyers of tomorrow, but they are also a tremendous cost-effective way to provide much needed legal services to poor citizens of this state and refugees from other countries.

But now, these law professors – the faculty members and the part-time paid adjunct faculty of these clinical programs who are most frequently public defenders – are also mandated reporters.

Worse, it doesn’t matter if the information they gleaned was during the course of their full-time employment as a public defender. By virtue of their being adjunct faculty members, they have to report their own clients, thus vitiating any attorney-client confidentiality and utterly destroying the Sixth Amendment guarantee of conflict-free representation.

This is utterly ridiculous. While there are many ethical opinions out there that state [PDF] conclusively that attorney-client privilege trumps [PDF] any mandatory reporting statute, the reality is that the legislatures are making failure to report suspected child abuse a very serious crime with incarceration as the penalty.

Of course, one might assume that the same protections apply to social workers or mitigation specialists who are part of the defense team – and there is some appellate authority to support that – but we aren’t going to know either for sure until a lawyer or social worker fails to report and gets arrested. While there are some who will put their liberty on the line and challenge the statute as being unconstitutional, that cannot be asked of anyone – no one should have to be the guinea pig.

Whether knowingly or otherwise, this legislature has taken steps to completely shred the 6th Amendment in Connecticut. This must be rectified immediately.


Unethical for lawyers to make clients forgo claims against them

From the “You Don’t Say” chronicles, a still-groundbreaking opinion1 [PDF] from the KY Supreme Court this week has ruled it unethical for plea agreements between the prosecution and the defense to include “waiver of ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) claims” clauses.

For those who don’t know, everyone is guaranteed the effective assistance of counsel, pursuant to the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution. This means that every time you have a lawyer in a criminal case, that lawyer must perform to a reasonably competent standard. He doesn’t have to be perfect, but has to be competent.

A method of challenging convictions is to claim that the lawyer did not provide effective assistance: whether by performing poorly at trial, not conducting an adequate investigation or forcing a client to take a plea agreement without explaining everything properly or making sure it was in the client’s best interests.

An IAC claim is the final Constitutional check against illegal convictions. In Federal court, prosecutors routinely require defendants to give up that check in order to have a favorable plea bargain.

This KY opinion doesn’t say that an individual cannot voluntarily give up his right to IAC, but rather says that it is unethical for prosecutors to offer this and for defense lawyers to advise clients about it.

There are two primary reasons for this, both of which are valid: first, if a lawyer counsels his client to waive IAC against himself, it’s the fox guarding the henhouse. He has an inherent conflict in that situation. “Here, take this deal, but you have to agree not to challenge my performance in representing you”. That sounds like a scam from the get-go.

Second, Federal plea bargains are less “negotiations” and more “take-it-or-leave-it”:

Despite any notion of horse trading, plea agreements are often essentially contracts of adhesion. Indeed, in the context of appellate waivers, they have been labeled as such. The plea agreement often comes with a take-it-or-leave-it tone. And defense counsel is forced to deal with the provision if offered. Because the prosecutor is aware of our ethical rules, we see little reason why offering a contract of adhesion that requires a fellow attorney to perform   unethically in order to comply with other ethical or constitutional obligations would not be “influencing or persuading” a fellow attorney to violate our ethical rules.

This decision is sure to make US Attorneys very unhappy, but it’s a small step in ensuring that lawyers are always acting in their own clients’ best interests and are not worried about being found incompetent.

H/T: Legal Ethics Forum


Waiver by budget cut

You’ve just been arrested by the Federal Government and you’re shuttled off to a prison in a remote location, hours away from your home and your state. You are adamant that you’re innocent and you have lots and lots of thoughts about how the Government is persecuting you. You sit down to write these thoughts with pen and paper, but then the counselor who supervises you tells you that you can access email!

Email! The modern pen and paper; the standard mode of written communication in this day and age. You are delighted because your penmanship is atrocious and because it would take you hours to write all your thoughts and weeks to get your thoughts to your lawyers and weeks further still for them to write letters back. But email is instantaneous. So you fire up the email system and click accept and begin banging away at the keyboards.

You send these confidential thoughts about the defense of your case to your lawyer and, apparently, the prosecutors.

Yes. Federal prosecutors have readily admitted in several cases that they are monitoring suspects emails to their lawyers, reading them and then using that information to strengthen their case against those suspects.

Talk about system stacked against you: you’re charged with a crime by the Government. You have your liberty taken away by the Government. You have excessive bails set by the Government so you can’t leave. You are given limited and controlled access to your lawyers by the Government. And then, they monitor everything you say and then use that against you. How can they do this?

Defense lawyers say the government is overstepping its authority and taking away a necessary tool for an adequate defense. Some of them have refused to admit even the existence of sensitive emails — which, they say, perhaps predictably, are privileged.

All defendants using the federal prison email system, Trulincs, have to read and accept a notice that communications are monitored, prosecutors in Brooklyn pointed out. Prosecutors once had a “filter team” to set aside defendants’ emails to and from lawyers, but budget cuts no longer allow for that, they said.

Budget cuts. That bureaucratic, administrative go-to. The liberty that this nation pretends to hold so dear won’t be lost by war, or a bloody coup, but rather in slow, incremental steps by bureaucracy.

It is “too expensive” to set up a filter in the email system to enable a bypass of emails sent to specific email addresses, something that can be done for free in as clunky an email system as Outlook.

Some judges, however, are supporting this practice because they claim that defendants sign waivers when they use the system:

But a judge, Charles A. Pannell Jr. of the United States District Court in Atlanta, ruled in 2012 that by using Trulincs, Mr. Wheat “consented to the monitoring and thus had no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

This is consent of the same nature as you consenting to Facebook using your photographs or God knows what else we’ve all agreed to when we’ve hurriedly hit the “accept” button on terms of use on over a hundred thousand websites that we regularly frequent.

It’s coercive and, given the state of society today, we don’t really have a choice. Now imagine that coercive situation, but you’re in jail.

Comparing it to old-fashioned communication, however, shows how consent is a red herring. Letters written to lawyers are marked privileged and are not read. They can be, however. There’s nothing stopping correctional officers from opening those letters. They choose not to, because of a department wide policy and the general sense that doing so would violate confidentiality.

So either there’s a legal principle that bars them reading letters and that same legal principle should bar them from reading emails, or there’s a policy that prevents them from reading letters and they haven’t extended that policy to emails, but which shows that there’s no functional difference between the two modes and it’s merely a matter of convenience.

This is one of those things that, if pushed to a head, would necessarily spell trouble for the prosecution. We’ve had just that happen here in CT, where prosecutors read confidential word documents about the defense of the charges. A day after argument before the Supreme Court, he was ordered immediately released.

Sure, it’s good advice to never discuss confidential matters via modes of communication that have the potential to be monitored, but that applies to everything, including in person visits. But just because the Government can invade your confidentiality, doesn’t mean that they have the right to do so.