Sarasota defense attorney, and friend of the firm, Varinia Van Ness had criminal charges sought by the Sarasota Police against her for her representation of her client. The mere fact that officers would even consider trying to charge a defense attorney for zealously doing her job is shocking. It’s petty, retaliatory, and an affront to our adversarial system of justice. Fortunately, the officer’s multiple attempts to file charges were rebuffed by cooler heads.
It started when two Sarasota detectives sought to serve search warrants on Ms. Van Ness’ client and his phone. The parties agreed to meet at Van Ness’ office but about 10 minutes into the meeting, it was revealed that a Detective Derek Galbraith had activated a recording device without notifying Ms. Van Ness. When she found out, she insisted he either terminate the recording, or to leave the office. He declined to turn it off, but he also declined to leave the office. She indicated he was trespassing, but he still wouldn’t leave and Van Ness eventually called 911 to get him to leave.
After detectives left, they tried to serve the warrants again at the client’s work, at his brother’s house, and even at his ex-girlfriend’s home. Van Ness and her client agreed to meet at the police department. When the Detectives read the phone warrant, a spelling error was noticed in the client’s name, and Van Ness and her client left the room, though they ultimately did submit a DNA sample. Later that day, Detective Dan Riley from the Sarasota PD requested that a warrant be issued for the arrest of attorney Van Ness for obstruction of justice.
Fortunately, the warrant was never issued. It was submitted to a judge who recognized that the case involved a defense attorney doing her job, which would be a valid challenge to the warrant. He said it would have to be reviewed the State Attorneys office to see if formal charges were warranted. Sarasota PD didn’t give up, and submitted the warrant request to the State Attorney’s office. The local SAO had a conflict of interest, and the case was reassigned to the 20th Judicial Circuit SAO, who also declined to file charges. Sarasota PD took one more shot, submitting the case to FDLE, who also declined to pursue charges. The case was reviewed by three separate independent judges/agencies, who all agreed there was no merit to bringing charges.
This type of attack on an attorney is shocking and very problematic to the justice system. Ultimately, the fear would be that if cops can go charge an attorney for advocating for their clients, the chilling affect on the job of defense attorneys would harm our criminal justice system and is an affront to the Constitutional protection to the right to be represented by an attorney. The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to assistance of counsel, and it applies at every level of a criminal investigation.
It’s rare that law enforcement would seek to charge an attorney for advocacy in the normal course of their work. Usually, it takes something really egregious, the Paul Bergrin case in New Jersey springs to mind, where he assisted gangsters placing hits against witnesses. Only something extreme that goes beyond advocacy should even be considered, and even then, it should be reviewed by attorneys before being submitted for a warrant.
Asking a Detective to leave your office because they recorded you without permission is not obstruction of justice. Declining to have your client turn over his phone password when his name is spelled wrong on the warrant is not obstruction of justice. That’s advocacy. Zealous advocates like Varinia Van Ness are the first check against government overreach and the primary protection of individual Constitutional rights. We are lucky to have defense attorneys like Varinia.