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2011 Formal Ethics Opinion 12

October 21, 2011

Disclosing Clerk’s Error to Court

Opinion rules that a lawyer must notify the court when a clerk of court mistakenly dismisses a client’s charges.


Inquiry:


Lawyer has a client in custody who has numerous cases pending in district court. Lawyer negotiates a plea agreement with the assistant district attorney (ADA) whereby all but two of the charges will be dismissed. Lawyer asks for the client to be brought into the courtroom to enter his plea. At that time, Lawyer is informed that the client has already been taken back to the jail. Lawyer and the ADA agree to continue the case to the next business day. When Lawyer subsequently goes to visit his client in jail, he is told that the client was released because all of his charges were dismissed.


Upon investigation, Lawyer confirms that all of the client’s charges had been voluntarily dismissed. The dismissals are clearly the result of an error by the clerk of court and do not reflect the plea agreement entered into by Lawyer and the ADA.


Must lawyer inform the clerk of court of the error?


Opinion:


Yes. The preamble to the Rules of Professional Conduct provides that as a member of the legal profession, a lawyer is an “officer of the legal system.” Rule 0.1. Rule 8.4(d) states that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to “engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.” Similarly, Comment [2] to Rule 3.3 (Candor Toward the Tribunal) refers to the special duties of lawyers as officers of the court to “avoid conduct that undermines the integrity of the adjudicative process.”


Under Rule 3.3, for example, a lawyer has a duty to disclose a client's false testimony even though it may have grave consequences for the client, where the alternative is that the lawyer cooperate in deceiving the court thereby subverting the truth-finding process which the adversary system is designed to implement. Rule 3.3, Cmt. [11]. Thus, if a conflict arises between a lawyer’s duty to his client and his duties as an officer of the court, the lawyer’s duty to the court must prevail.


This inquiry differs from that addressed in 98 FEO 5, which provides that a defense lawyer does not have a duty to inform the court of an inaccurate driving record presented by the prosecutor. In the situation addressed in 98 FEO 5, both advocates are present in court and each is expected to present evidence and carry his burden of proof. The opinion states that the burden of proof is on the state to show that the defendant's driving record justifies a more restrictive sentencing level and that the defense lawyer is not required to volunteer adverse facts when the prosecutor fails to bring them forward.


In the instant inquiry, Lawyer knows that his client’s charges were dismissed in error and that “justice” (in the form of a negotiated plea to which Lawyer and the client agreed) was not carried out. Therefore, Lawyer has an obligation to inform the court or the clerk of court of the apparent error. Accord Wis. Formal Ethics Op. E-84-7 (1984)(defense attorney has obligation to inform the court or the court’s staff of clerk of court’s error).

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