POLITICS

Lawyers Want Judge Punished For Having Public Defender Handcuffed

Conrad Hafen has "complete disregard for the law," a group of 150 lawyers alleges in a complaint.

A group of Nevada defense attorneys has called for sanctions against a judge who had a public defender handcuffed in court last week, saying he has "complete disregard for the law."

The complaint, dated May 26, was filed against Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Conrad Hafen. Hafen had Clark County Deputy Public Defender Zohra Bakhtary placed into handcuffs as she defended a client who faced jail for violating probation, the Las Vegas Review-Journal first reported. As Bakhtary tried to speak, Hafen told her to "be quiet" and then told a marshal to handcuff Bakhtary and seat her in the jury box next to inmates. Hafen ultimately sentenced Bakhtary's client to six months in jail.

The complaint provides new details into the incident. It says the public defender was so "shaken" by the judge's actions that she asked him for a break from the proceedings and requested that her supervisor come into the courtroom. But Hafen denied those requests, the complaint alleges, and ordered Bakhtary to carry on representing clients who had observed her "being demeaned and humiliated by the judge."

Bakhtary told The Huffington Post last week that the judge's actions were "extremely offensive" and that she never behaved unprofessionally in his courtroom but was simply trying to do her job.

The complaint also says Hafen himself lacked proper courtroom demeanor when he referred to both Bakhtary and the prosecutor in court by their first names, rather than by their titles and last names. 

The judge, "by punishing a Public Defender for simply doing what is required of her, demonstrates a callous disregard for the defense function, the dignity of defense counsel and the integrity of the criminal justice system," the complaint reads. "Appropriate sanctions are required."

The complaint was filed with the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline, a state body that reviews and investigates allegations of misconduct, by the Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice, a group of over 150 criminal defense attorneys who practice law in the state.

The attorneys allege that Hafen has gotten carried away before. They highlight two other disturbing cases in the complaint.

In one example, a man named Montreal Carter represented himself in court after Hafen wouldn't allow him more time to secure a defense attorney. At one point, Hafen became irritated with Carter and repeatedly interrupted him -- as happened in the incident with Bakhtary. Hafen then ordered Carter jailed for contempt, according to a court transcript:

MR. CARTER: There's a 14th Amendment for constitutionally protected property, as well as life and liberty. Can you tell me what the 14th Amendment is?

MR. LEXIS: I'll object to relevance.

THE COURT: It's not relevant. He's not a state actor. Okay?

MR. CARTER: I was never given the opportunity--

THE COURT: The 14th Amendment doesn't apply to him because -- okay, I've had enough. You're now in contempt. Travis, take him to jail. Okay? 10 days. That's what we're going to do. 10 days. I'm done. We'll put it back on for the trial in 10 days. 

MR. CARTER: I'm just trying to defend myself.

THE COURT: You want to keep it up and I'll give you another 10 days?

MR. CARTER: No, sir.

...

MR. CARTER: Your Honor, I apologize.

THE COURT: I understand. It's too late.

THE DEFENDANT: I'm not trying to disrespect you or the --

THE COURT: I warned you continually. You continued to argue with me. I'm not going to put up with that. 10 days contempt because of your behavior. Okay? And your attitude. You're going to jail.

MR CARTER: Your Honor, I'm just trying to defend myself. I have no --

THE COURT: You're going to jail. Do you want another 10 days? This is what I'm talking about. 

MR. CARTER: I'm just apologizing.

The court sent Carter to jail, but Hafen did later revise the contempt sentence and release Carter, the complaint notes.

In a second example, Hafen sent a woman to jail for two weeks for contempt. Latoya Johnson, who also appeared in court without an attorney, was jailed after what court records describe simply as an "outburst." She too was later released from custody, according to the complaint. 

Hafen did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline told HuffPost that, due to state confidentiality requirements, it could not confirm or deny that the matter was currently under review or that it would be reviewed during upcoming quarterly meetings. 

The judge has faced sharp criticism over his treatment of Bakhtary. Last week, the Clark County Defenders Union, which represents about 100 public defenders in the county, denounced his actions as "unreasonable and unprecedented."

Daniel Medwed, a criminal law expert and professor at Northeastern University, said Hafen's actions are indeed alarming.

"If a judge perceives that a lawyer is acting inappropriately, then contempt is the usual recourse, and/or initiating a disciplinary action," Medwed said. "But handcuffing a lawyer to teach a lesson strikes me far outside the norm of judicial conduct and cause for concern."

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