Public Defender Who Was Handcuffed In Court Has Contempt Order Overturned

A judge told the attorney to "be quiet" and that she needed to learn "a lesson." But she fought back.

A Las Vegas judge on Tuesday overturned a contempt order against an attorney who was placed in handcuffs in court and told she needed to learn “a lesson” about courtroom etiquette.

In May, Clark County Deputy Public Defender Zohra Bakhtary was advocating for a client who faced jail time for violating probation, when Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Conrad Hafen told her to “be quiet” and had her handcuffed. The judge then had Bakharty seated in the jury box next to inmates, and sentenced her client to six months in jail.

It’s well within a judge’s power to restrain a person who is acting out of order in the courtroom, but rarely do they use this power against an attorney advocating on behalf of a client.

About a week after the incident, Hafen filed a contempt order against Bakhtary. She fought back, and on Tuesday Clark County Judge Gloria J. Sturman agreed with her case, reversing the order.

Lawyers are required to meet high ethical standards. If a lawyer is held in contempt by a court, that conviction must be disclosed when applying for a job or a bar license in another jurisdiction. Now that Hafen’s order has been overturned, it means Bakhtary is no longer convicted of contempt.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Bakhtary said she was thankful that the judge overturned the order, but added that this “offensive” incident is one she will never forget.

“Having moved to the United States from Kabul, Afghanistan, as a teenager, it was my dream to live and work in a country that embraces people’s civil and constitutional rights,” Bakhtary said. “That is precisely why I chose to work as a public defender. I have a great deal of respect for this country’s criminal justice system and an accused’s right to effective assistance of counsel.”

Shortly after the handcuffing incident, a group of Nevada defense attorneys called for sanctions against Hafen, saying he has a “complete disregard for the law” and that he “demeaned and humiliated” Bakhtary in court. The Clark County Defenders Union, which represents about 100 public defenders in the county, including Bakhtary, also denounced Hafen’s actions, calling them “unreasonable and unprecedented.”

About two weeks later, incumbent Hafen lost the race for his seat in a landslide to Amy Chelini, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor.

Bakhtary said the experience with Hafen challenged her notion that America respects the rights of all ― but it isn’t going to stop her from fighting for her clients.

“The court’s constitutional duty is to listen to arguments, not silence them,” Bakhtary said. “While this act of physical restraint did not diminish my passion and devotion to continue to represent the indigent, it was extremely disturbing that the court continued to sentence my client without an attorney after having violated his right to counsel.”

Hafen did not immediately respond to a request for comment.