The outrageous handcuffing of public defenders must stop
by Stephen Cooper
The Las Vegas Review-Journal reports that a “deputy public defender found herself in handcuffs Monday [May 23] as she tried to keep a client out of jail.” Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Conrad Hafen “said he wanted to teach the lawyer about courtroom etiquette,” so he directed his courtroom marshal to handcuff public defender Zohra Bakhtary, a lawyer who has appeared weekly in his courtroom for the last year to defend poor people charged with crimes.
Bakhtary was cuffed and made to “sit in the jury box, alongside inmates wearing jail clothing, while the judge finished hearing the case at hand.”
According to Judge Hafen, Bakhtary’s offense in advocating for her client not to go to jail for an alleged probation violation on petit larceny charges was that Bakhtary “talk[ed] over” him and was interrupting him as he made his ruling.
As reported by The Washington Post, a virtually identical situation occurred in D.C. in the fall of 2007, when I was working as a trial attorney at the D.C. Public Defender Service. One of my colleagues, an exceptional attorney and passionate, dedicated woman of color like Bakhtary – was, just like Bakhtary, advocating against the imprisonment of her poor client – when a D.C. Superior Court judge summarily ordered the marshals to “step her back,” where she “was searched, shackled, and detained.” The Post reported “transcripts show[ed] the trouble took place during a protracted back-and-forth at a hearing” where my colleague was trying to inform the judge “that a client she was representing was ‘homeless and poor.’”
Almost two years after this volatile and disturbing episode, The Legal Times quietly noted in its blog that the Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure publicly reprimanded the judge because the circumstances “did not approach the rare circumstances in which the extraordinary exercise of judicial power would be warranted.”
Taking a decidedly different view of the indistinguishable brouhaha between himself and public defender Bakhtary, Judge Hafen in Las Vegas said “he thought handcuffing the lawyer may cure the problem,” insisting, “And it did. We went on with the rest of the calendar, and everything was fine.”
Earth to Judge Hafen: everything is assuredly not “fine.”
No different from the case involving my colleague in D.C., where the Judicial Commission found the judge “violated the judicial canon that instructs judges to ‘be patient, dignified and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers, and others'”, Judge Hafen clearly let his umbrage at being talked over cloud his judgment. While it’s too early to know, discipline for Judge Hafen and a public clearing of the record should, mimicking what happened in D.C., likewise follow.
Are these incidents of public defenders, particularly women public defenders, being disrespected and trussed up like they robbed a bank few and far between? It sure doesn’t seem so.
In March, a just-released report authored by the Office of Citizen Complaints opined on a January 2015 incident stating, “San Francisco police officers wrongly arrested a deputy public defender and handcuffed her after she questioned why they were photographing one of her clients outside a courtroom.” When asked by the media about what happened, the brave public defender in that case “said her reputation was harmed and that she was embarrassed as a result of her courthouse arrest.”
Her boss said: “Public defenders represent people with little money and even less power. It is contempt for the poor that results in routine disrespect of public defenders. In the face of this contempt, Jami never wavered in her duty to her client. That’s because the right to counsel is a shield to protect ordinary citizens from intimidation.”
Can I get an ‘Amen’ anyone? How about a ‘Hallelujah’?
Being a public defender is tough. It’s grinding, under-compensated, unappreciated, physically and emotionally draining work. It takes fierce heart, thick skin, formidable stamina, and a deep-seated desire to help the least fortunate among us.
The time is now for all judges, police officers and other repeat players in the criminal justice system – not to mention the society at large – to give public defenders what they so richly deserve: Respect.
Stephen Cooper is a former federal and D.C. public defender. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.
Graphic by Vectorportal (Vectorportal.com). [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons