Monday, January 26, 2009

Ohio Attorney Avoids Prison By Snitching

In 2006, federal law enforcement officials became suspicious that Frank Pignatelli of Akron, Ohio, was involved in drug trafficking. When confronted by agents and threatened with prosecution, Pignatelli did what many before have done: he agreed to be a snitch confidential informant.

What sets Pignatelli apart, though, is that Pignatelli is a criminal defense attorney, and he agreed to provide testimony against people who thought or would come to think that he was their attorney. One of his "clients" was sentenced last week to serve 15 years in prison.

Pignatelli could snitch on "clients" because when a client and his attorney conspire to commit an unlawful act, their communications are not privileged. So if Pignatelli was helping someone to set up drug transactions or to launder the monetary proceeds of such transactions, his conversations with his clients weren't protected by privilege.

Even though his conduct in revealing client confidences is technically permissible, as a defense attorney, I get an uneasy, nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach when thinking about what Pignatelli did. He sold out his clients to the government in order to help himself. He put his own interests above that of his clients: the opposite of what an attorney is supposed to do. That our government is rewarding him for doing so makes my unease grow even more.

Becoming a lawyer means being willing to protect someone else, even when doing so makes us uncomfortable. And as defense attorneys, our job is to be a check against the unrestrained exercise of government power. I know I've just described criminal defense as a more noble calling than it is generally portrayed or perceived, but often, our actions are the only things that will shield a citizen from the loss of his liberty (or his life). Pignatelli went from a restraint on the government's power to incarcerate people to an instrument of it.

Pignatelli's drug clients no doubt placed him in a "high-end" criminal defense practice--in other words, he was making a lot of money from his clients, many of whom he would ultimately sell out. But at the first sign of trouble, he handed them over to the government. His story stands in stark contrast to that of Beth Lewis, a Montgomery County public defender who just a few years ago risked a contempt conviction and jail to protect the confidences of a deceased client.

And the ultimate irony? Pignatelli, no doubt unable to find new get-of-jail-free cards clients in Ohio, has pulled up stakes and opened a criminal defense practice in Colorado, where he defends accused drug dealers.

Link: Beacon Journal (via Talkleft).

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