Mike Perlstein / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS -- On the day after Christmas, Travis Chapuis was arrested as a suspect in the armed robbery of Buffa’s Lounge, a Faubourg Marigny bar and restaurant. Despite seeing his bail set at $125,000, it didn’t take Chapuis long to get out of jail.
Chapuis and his family paid $16,250 cash for a commercial bail bond. But when it came time to get an attorney, Chapuis was declared indigent, eligible for a free lawyer from the Orleans Public Defender’s office.
It didn’t end there. While out on bond earlier this year, Chapuis was arrested in a simple robbery. Again, he and his family were able to pay for another bail bond, and once again, he was provided a taxpayer-funded lawyer. Chapuis is now serving 13 years in prison after being tried and convicted.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said this case, and many others like it, should raise a red flag that the screening of defendants by the public defender’s office for indigency, and the appointment of that office by judges, is out of whack.
“It clearly appears this individual could afford the services of a private attorney,” Cannizzaro said of Chapuis. “It’s not fair to the indigent population who gets arrested if they have to share the resources of the public defender’s office with people who can legitimately afford a private counsel. It’s just not fair.”
In New Orleans, nearly 85 percent of criminal defendants are represented by taxpayer-funded lawyers from the public defender’s office. That compares to less than 50 percent of defendants who are declared eligible for a free lawyer in Jefferson Parish.
A review of dozens of cases by Channel 4 shows that Chapuis represents just one of many similar cases in which defendants are shelling out thousands of dollars to bail bond companies for their freedom, yet qualifying for a free public defender.
Take Edward Hines. He was arrested three times since 2009 – and is still awaiting trial – on felony drug charges, each time buying his freedom by paying for a bail bond, more than $10,000 total. That’s about four times the beginning rate of a private defense attorney.
“This is an absolute wasting of the resources,” Cannizzaro said. “You have this person who’s had to pay over $10,000 to commercial surety companies in order to secure his freedom, when that money could have been used to pay for a lawyer.”
Cannizzaro said the public defender’s office is draining scarce criminal justice resources during a time of ultra-tight budgets. And he said some judges, responsible by state statute for appointing the free lawyers, are fueling the problem.
“There should be some consistency in the court,” he said. “The court makes that determination.”
The process starts when a defendant first appears in court. A public defender usually provides representation at the bail hearing before a magistrate. According to critics, those initial contacts are when the public defender’s begins commandeering cases they shouldn’t handle.
By the time a defendant has a hearing before a judge, the public defender has taken on the case and, according to the D.A. and others, many judges grant the appointment without any review of a defendant’s finances.
Private defense attorney J.C. Lawrence said the public defender’s office is motivated to add more clients because it means more money at budget time. Lawrence said the office is getting more than its share of cases by misleading defendants at those initial hearings.
“I think they’re very happy scooping up every individual and determining indigency themselves,” Lawrence said. “And it’s not the law. What they do I believe is in fact in contempt of court. They’re not appointed for the purposes for which they are going forward. And they should stop. They should desist.”
Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton defended his office, denying any practices – or desire – to take on defendants who aren’t truly indigent.
“It’s ridiculous,” Bunton said. “It’s patently false. We don’t represent folks who aren’t eligible for our services.”
But Bunton did acknowledge that has had to reign in some of his volunteer screeners, students who often have the first contact with defendants, either in jail or magistrate bond hearings.
“It’s not wrong,” Bunton said, “but I’ll admit, I don’t want to give the wrong impression to folks who might be able to leverage other resources, that they don’t have to look to those resources. So we’ve changed our script.”
Aside from that now-resolved issue, Bunton is adamant that his office is simply following the law, which states that a defendant’s ability to afford a lawyer is based on that person’s individual assets. So even if a defendant is supported by family members with lots of money, that defendant still qualifies.
“I understand where people are coming from. They’re looking at these high bonds and thinking where there’s smoke, there’s fire," Bunton said. "But from our standpoint, we know what the law says."
So how do defendants like Chapuis and Hines end up with a public defender?
According to Bunton: “The information that we have about their individual assets and income, they’re eligible. Now whether they’re finding money other places, I can’t say. But when they screen, they screen eligible.”
Despite the wide gulf of opinion, there was common ground on possible reforms to alleviate the tension between the district attorney’s office, public defender’s office and private defense bar on the issue.
Cannizzaro, Lawrence and Bunton agreed that a pre-trial services program would improve the situation by providing independent screening of defendants. That’s the system is used in federal court, but state courts in New Orleans have never funded such a program.
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