Lawyers give info cards to defendants outside courtroom to protest judge's arraignment procedure

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More than a dozen criminal defense lawyers converged Friday outside a Texas courtroom and handed out informational cards to misdemeanor defendants in an attempt to counteract what they say is an unconstitutional arraignment procedure being used by a Harris County judge.

The yellow cards inform defendants of their constitutional rights, in English and Spanish, and provide a phone number to call for those who entered guilty pleas without consulting with a lawyer, KTRK and the Houston Chronicle (sub. req.) report.

The Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, which spearheaded the effort, says that Judge Michael Fields and his staff are pressuring defendants into guilty and no-contest pleas without legal representation.

“At this point, we’re concerned; it’s gone on far too long, and so we feel like it’s appropriate that we step in,” said HCCLA President Carmen Roe to KTRK.

“We believe he’s coercing defendants to either waive their right to a lawyer or enter a plea of guilty without their lawyer being present,” attorney JoAnne Musick told the Chronicle while helping to hand out written material. Musick is president elect of the HCCLA. “We’ve had complaints from people who asked for a lawyer and instead he handed them plea papers and had them enter a plea of guilty.”

However, the judge said that he isn’t doing anything wrong and in fact is following proper procedure. He told the Chronicle that many people want resolve their cases and avoid the expense of a trial. “It doesn’t matter to me whether they plead guilty, not guilty or no contest,” he said.

“I’m doing exactly what the law requires,” Fields told CW39 NewsFix, “and that is ensuring that people understand their rights, that they have the right to an attorney, and that they freely, knowingly, voluntarily waive that right.”

Fields provided transcripts to the media to show that nothing untoward was going on in his courtroom. Roe dismissed this, telling CW39 NewsFix: “Simply because he’s changed it today doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening yesterday, and that it won’t happen tomorrow.”

The group told KTRK it had no plans to file a formal complaint, but would return to pass out more cards if they felt it was necessary.

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