Withdrawing lawyer nailed for criminal contempt

Pat Murphy, The Daily Record Newswire

It’s probably not the wisest of moves to try to pull out of a case on the eve of a client’s scheduled arraignment, particularly when there are cranky judges out there who wield the power to hold lawyers in contempt.

Yesterday, the Kentucky Supreme Court pointed out the risk, teaching a lesson to Burkesville criminal defense lawyer Stephen H. Poindexter.

In 2009, Poindexter agreed to represent Waylon Bradshaw, who had been indicted by an Adair County grand jury. Bradshaw’s arraignment was scheduled for Dec. 15, 2009.  Unable to make the scheduled arraignment, Poindexter arranged for a fellow attorney, Michael Harris, to stand in with Bradshaw at the hearing.

However, when Harris showed up for the hearing, the trial judge informed him that the stand-in would be entered as the attorney of record pursuant to local court rules. Harris balked at this, so the trial judge passed Bradshaw’s arraignment until Jan. 12, 2010.

On Dec. 28, Poindexter filed his notice of appearance as Bradshaw’s attorney with the trial court. However, the lawyer soon began having second thoughts when he realized he would not be able to make the Jan. 12 arraignment due to an unavoidable conflict in his schedule.

Poindexter contacted the state’s attorney, who agreed to continue the arraignment in light of Poindexter’s scheduling conflict, but the trial judge refused to reschedule the matter, citing the fact that the arraignment had been continued once already.

Apparently feeling he had no other recourse, on Jan. 11 — the day before his client’s hearing — Poindexter filed a notice with the court indicating his withdrawal as Bradshaw’s attorney. The notice indicated that another local attorney, Theodore Lavit, would be taking the case. For some reason, the hand off of the case did not go smoothly, and Bradshaw showed up at the next day’s arraignment without a lawyer.

The trial judge was miffed, to say the least. At a subsequent contempt hearing, the judge determined that Poindexter intentionally failed to appear on Jan. 12, and held him in criminal contempt of court. The judge ordered Poindexter to pay a $250 fine and spend 96 hours in jail.

Poindexter felt he had been wronged by the contempt citation, arguing he had withdrawn as Bradshaw’s counsel and therefore had no duty to appear at the arraignment.

Last month, the Kentucky Supreme Court decided that Poindexter only had himself to blame and upheld the criminal contempt order. The court explained that, by filing his notice of appearance as Bradshaw’s attorney, he became the attorney of record in that case and, for all intents and purposes, had “appeared” for his client.

As such, Poindexter was required to comply with local rules when he wanted to withdraw. This he failed to do. The court explained:

Because it is undisputed that [Poindexter] did not request: permission from the court to withdraw as counsel, nor provide the court with a showing of “extraordinary circumstances,” we conclude that [Poindexter] had a duty to appear with Bradshaw at his arraignment.