'Anti-defense bill' would put public defenders at risk of jail and hamper their work, critics say
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Critics say legislation passed by the Louisiana House of Representatives would put public defenders in an ethical quandary and put them at risk of jail time.
Dane Ciolino, a law professor at Loyola University at New Orleans, calls the legislation an “anti-defense bill” that is unnecessary and one-sided, the Appeal reports.
The bill would require public defenders interviewing victims and their families to “clearly and unambiguously” provide notice that they represent the defendant, and that those interviewed don’t have to talk. Those who violate the law could be sent to jail for up to six months.
Ciolino says the bill does not apply to law enforcement or prosecutors, and he says it’s unnecessary in any event because ethics rules already bar lawyers from misleading witnesses.
Critics also say the bill would pose ethics problems because it requires lawyers to advise people whom they don’t represent. They fear that the bill will push public defender offices to send two lawyers or investigators to corroborate that they are following the law when speaking with victims or their families, raising costs for the offices.
That already is the procedure being followed in Orleans Parish, where prosecutors have brought cases accusing public defenders of impersonating law enforcement and witness tampering. The charges eventually were dropped or overturned, according to a past report by the Guardian.
The bill could end up suppressing investigations by public defenders, says James Dixon Jr., state public defender. “What you’re doing is essentially hamstringing the ability of public defenders to basically do their duty, which is to defend their client,” he told lawmakers.