Tuesday, February 1, 2011

BECAUSE WE HAVE THE POWER TO FUCK OUR CLIENTS - The Jefferson Parish Indigent Defender Board Edition

$275 in fines, 30 days in the hoosegow with all those days suspended, 6 months inactive probation.
That's what Vincent Castillo got after a bench trial in the First Parish Court of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana.  And three misdemeanor convictions:  Speeding, driving with a suspended license, and driving with an expired license.  (I assume it ran out and he couldn't renew it while it was suspended, but I'm just guessing.  And it doesn't really matter here.)
Because Castillo was indigent, he was represented at trial by the Jefferson Parish Indigent Defender Board.  Because he lost, he tried to get the convictions overturned.  Twice he asked for counsel to be appointed to help him seek review.  Twice the Parish Court said no.  Castillo then asked the Court of Appeal, which looked at cases from the United States Supreme Court (Williams v. Oklahoma City and Mayer v. Chicago), then took a look at the Equal Protection Clause and said, "Sure."  The Parish Court, as required on remand, appointed the Jefferson Parish Indigent Defender Board (the same folks who represented him at trial, the people whose job is to represent the indigent accused) to represent him.
And the Board, understanding its duty to, as I just said parenthetically "represent the indigent accused), asked the Court of Appeal to let them off the hook.  There is, the Board said, no statutory or constitutional basis for Castillo to have appointed counsel now.
It's easy (and correct) to say that Louisiana's system for dealing with low level misdemeanors sucks.
  • A person charged with a misdemeanor punishable by more than six months imprisonment is entitled to a jury trial.
  • A person charged with a misdemeanor punishable by six months or less is entitled only to a bench trial.
  • A person entitled to a jury trial is also entitled to a direct appeal of a conviction.
  • A person entitled only to a bench trial is not entitled to a direct appeal but may seek discretionary review.
As I say, that sucks.
Oh, sure, six months or less in prison is a "petty offense."  Right.
Petty to just whom?  Fair question.  Pretty clearly not to the person sentenced to 6 months behind bars.  At Second Class Justice which is where I came across Castillo's situation (to which we'll shortly return), G. Ben Cohen puts it this way.
The criminal justice system touches the vast majority of citizens lives, on minor charges like driving with a suspended license, possession of marijuana, driving under the influence.  These are in Louisiana and many other states described as petty offenses because the maximum sentence is six months in prison.  (Imagine if you will, telling your boss, spouse or kids that you will have to be gone for six months in Orleans Parish Prison, and the punishment doesn’t seem so “petty.”). 
Yup.  Imagine that.
In any event, it wasn't petty to Castillo, which is why he kept trying to get review.
Now, back to Castillo, and a very brief review.
He was convicted of "petty misdemeanors."  He wanted appointed counsel to help him get and win discretionary review.  The judge said no.  The Court of Appeal told the judge to appoint counsel.  The judge appointed the Indigent Defender Board.  Instead of representing Castillo, the Board asked the Court of Appeal for a writ to arguing that the indidgent guy they had previously arrested was no longer entitled to counsel and that they'd gotten it wrong.  They told the Board to go away.
Enter the Louisiana Supreme Court.  They agreed to hear the question of whether Castillo was entitled to an attorney.  They appointed LSU's student law clinic to represent Castillo.  Finally, someone.  For whatever reason, Castillo refused their representation.  They filed an amicus brief on his behalf.  And the Louisiana Supremes ruled.
On Friday, the court decided Louisiana v. Castillo.
No counsel.  None.
Oh, they cited law, reviewed cases that aren't really on point, but ultimately, they said he had no right.  Ben Cohen, again, explained why that's such a wrong headed ruling.
But now, judges in these circumstances are given complete freedom to impose what our founders would describe as tyranny on indigent defendants.  For rich defendants, judges face the possibility of supervisory review striking down an unjust punishment.  But for poor defendants, with no means of securing a lawyer, judges are free to do what they will.   And police officers can rest assured that no appellate court will throw out a search, a stop, an arrest for an indigent defendant charged with a petty offense.  Because the indigent defendant has no right to a lawyer.  That is second class justice.  No soup for you.
He's right. But courts screw poor people and criminal defendants all the time.  That's offensive, but I don't know that I'd have written about the case if that's all there were here.  
No, what particularly offends me, what set me off, happened well before the Louisiana Supremes weighed in.  I went ballistic when I saw that the Jefferson Parish Indigent Defender Board - appointed to defend an indigent guy in Jefferson Parish, a guy they'd represented at trial and to whom, presumably (though Louisiana is it's own special legal place they taught us in law school), they had some sort of continuing duty of loyalty - chose not to defend him but to litigate against his interest.  They didn't just refuse the appointment.  They challenged it.  All the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Who the fuck are these people?  And by what mangling of the language do they claim to be an "Indigent Defender Board"?
Public defenders are routinely called "public pretenders."  They're thought not to be real lawyers.  They're declared unable to get real work.  That's all bullshit.  Public defenders are some of the finest criminal lawyers out there.  They are, as a group, dedicated, passionate, capable, and committed.  Oh, there are real problems.  Some PDs are lazy and incompetent.  Way too many are under resourced.  Some of the offices are badly run.  But as a group - you won't find better lawyers anywhere.
And then there's the Jefferson Parish Indigent Defender Board.
I rarely actively solicit comments, but I will here.  I invite a representative to explain just why it is that they thought it was proper not simply to decline representation with whatever bullshit excuse would satisfy the judge but to litigate against the interest of their former client and the man they were appointed to represent.
I once had a court-appointed case where my client called me a "public offender."
Please.  Tell me one reason why that tag shouldn't be hung on the JPIDB?

1 comment:

  1. Shocking, but is it really? I suspect variations of this go on in many jurisdictions. In CON-necticut, the Public Defenders Office was unable to find an in-state attorney to represent me on appeal, for some inexplicable reason. They went out of state to find a hack attorney who filed some pro forma paperwork left-over on his computer from some other, older case.

    The principal issue raised was "prosecutorial misconduct." Problem is, no claims of prosecutorial misconduct were ever upheld by CT State Supreme Court. They always ruled "harmless error." And so they ruled in my cases. My argument now is that a concatenation of harmless errors amounts to ONE BIG HARMFUL ERROR. That the morons in robes don't think the way I do is a given fact of jurisprudence.

    The state informed me that my appointed defender would "come and visit me and discuss the issues which I wished to appeal." This turned out to be a false promise: Never happened. The designated, free-for-me attorney filed the appeal unilaterally without consulting me or seeking my approval.

    I did however attend the oral argument, where one of the justices asked questions which were so stewpid, it was obvious she knew nothing of the case and was ill-prepared to render intelligent judgment. Needless to say, we lost.
    The state S.C. denied me cert. The appellate procedure was simpley a continuation of the persecution and abuse heaped upon me by the trial court. Otherwise known as a "rubber stamp."