Public defender who defended cocaine use as sometimes beneficial should be suspended, disciplinary counsel says

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According to a brief filed by the Pennsylvania Office of Disciplinary Counsel, a 44-year-old lawyer should be suspended for using cocaine before his client’s hearing and defending it as sometimes helpful. Image from Shutterstock.

A lawyer who displayed a “stunning void of evidence regarding any genuine pursuit of sobriety” should be suspended for using cocaine before his client’s hearing and defending it as sometimes helpful, according to a brief filed by the Pennsylvania Office of Disciplinary Counsel.

The lawyer, 44-year-old Nathaniel Edmond Strasser of Erie, Pennsylvania, should be suspended for a year and a day, the office said in a Nov. 15 brief.

The Erie Times-News covered the brief, which was submitted to a disciplinary hearing panel that will make a recommendation in the ethics case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Strasser, then an assistant public defender in Erie County, Pennsylvania, was under the influence of cocaine during a November 2022 preliminary hearing in which he was representing a woman charged with driving under the influence, the brief alleges. A police officer at the hearing had noticed that Strasser was “very hyperactive, fidgety” and that he put on his sunglasses while in the judge’s office.

The officer stopped Strasser after the hearing, saw that his pupils were dilated, and that his nose was bleeding, according to the brief. Strasser submitted to a drug test at the request of the chief public defender. It tested positive for cocaine, and Strasser was fired. He had been working part time in the $37,000-per-year job, according to the Erie Times-News.

In a brief filed May 1, Strasser acknowledged the positive drug test but denied that “his ability to represent any client or his fitness to practice law has ever been impaired at any time.”

Strasser defended himself during a September disciplinary hearing. He claimed that he wasn’t under the influence during the preliminary hearing because he last used cocaine the previous morning, the disciplinary counsel’s office said.

Rather than expressing remorse, Strasser cross-examined the police officer “based on the absurd notion that cocaine enhances [his] performance as an attorney,” the disciplinary counsel brief said.

It cited testimony notes chronicling these statements:

  • “Cocaine has a positive effect on one’s cognitive abilities in low doses. … My mental awareness was at a heightened state, not a lower state.”

  • “In regards to any 12-step programs or anything like that, that’s only for addiction, and my problems aren’t really addiction.”

Strasser’s “refusal to express remorse for appearing at a hearing on a client’s behalf while under the influence of cocaine—and his suggestion throughout the disciplinary hearing in this matter that cocaine enhances his performance as an attorney—presents an unacceptable risk that [Strasser] will repeat this intolerable misconduct,” the disciplinary counsel brief said.

Strasser was admitted to law practice in 2007. He has no prior ethics violations. He did not immediately reply to an ABA Journal voicemail seeking comment.

Strasser has been represented by attorney Philip Friedman for about two weeks, Friedman told the Journal. Friedman said the deadline for filing a brief in response to the disciplinary counsel’s recommendation is Jan. 5. He declined further comment.

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