Category Archives: ethics

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.

Fighting John Murphy: It gets worse

Everyone’s heard of Fighting John Murphy by now: the judge who acted like an immature tyrant and punched a public defender in the hallway.

He’s agreed to go to anger management and take a paid leave of absence, despite this glowing, fawning biographical piece in the Wall Street Journal that highlights his extensive military history.

Unsurprisingly, the chief judge of his judicial district hasn’t taken too kindly to Fightin’ Murphy’s actions and has issued a strongly worded statement.

Surprisingly, Judge Kopf of Hercules and the Umpire authored two posts yesterday, both seeking to minimize and absolve Fightin’ Murphy of responsibility in this fracas. The first one alleges that the PD laid the bait and the judge took it. Which is just completely absurd if you’ve watched the video. When he got pushback, he clarified that the judge’s behavior was unacceptable, but understandable given the context that the public defender was an “ankle-biter”.

I don’t know what that means. Is that euphemism for a zealous advocate for one’s client? Then I’m an ankle-biter too. Does that give a judge license to humiliate me in open court and then threaten to beat me and then actually lay a hand on me?

This mentality of Fightin’ Murphy and the implication of the “context” of Judge Kopf is evidence of an all-too familiar prevailing sentiment of the public and court personnel toward public defenders. We are scum, lower than the clients we represent and, as Rodney Dangerfield said, we don’t get no respect.

To try to justify Fightin’ Murphy’s actions is to perpetuate that myth that we are annoying irritants, who are relegated to the ankles of the giants that roam the courtrooms: the judges and prosecutors. They are the ones doing good; we are miscreants who are so low that we can never reach beyond their feet.

But you know who’s the only one who’s ethically challenged? Fightin’ John Murphy. The video that has gone viral is only a few minutes long. When you watch the entire video, you will see that the judge does something insidious: he gets the lawyer banished from the courtroom and then returns and proceeds to talk to the represented defendant and tries to get him to waive his speedy trial rights – something that the lawyer refused to do. Luckily, the client refused as well. He then proceeds to talk to the next defendant, also represented by Weinstock.

[Video is below the fold. Sorry, but it autoplays, so be warned.]

A cop in sheep’s clothing

You’re poor. You’ve been arrested. You go to court and you can’t afford to hire a private attorney, so the court tells you to apply for a public defender. You go to their office and fill out a form and they ask you some questions. You have to tell them how much you make, how many dependents you have and how many assets you have. They thank you, give you your next court date and say that they have to complete an investigation into your finances before a final appointment is made.

That’s fine, you say. It makes sense. People shouldn’t be getting taxpayer funded services if they don’t qualify. Many states have made it a crime to lie on the application for public defender services and at least one state has held that there’s no confidentiality in the information provided in those applications.

So you go home and one day a nice man, Eric Carrizales, knocks on your door and says he’s here to investigate whether you really qualify for the public defender.

Carrizales spends a couple of hours a day at the courthouse sifting through applications and going to applicants’ homes to talk about their answers.

What a great public service. The Indigency Council that makes the appointments is tremendously happy about Carrizales’ work: