Sixth Circuit Reverses Attorney Sanctions in Child Porn Case - Ethics - U.S. Sixth Circuit
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Sixth Circuit Reverses Attorney Sanctions in Child Porn Case

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed attorney sanctions against Michigan lawyer John Freeman on Tuesday, finding that the district court erred in penalizing Freeman for an "unwarranted and baseless" disclosure request for the mother of a child pornography victim to speak at sentencing, reports The Associated Press.

Freeman represented Craig Aleo, a former Michigan school official who pleaded guilty to producing, possessing, and transporting and shipping child pornography. U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman slapped Freeman with $2,000 in attorney sanctions in 2002 after deciding that Freeman filed a meritless motion in a bad-faith effort to intimidate a victim who wished to speak during Aleo's sentencing hearing, pursuant to her rights under the Crime Victims' Rights Act (CVRA).

The CVRA offers victims the "right to be reasonably heard at any public proceeding in the district court involving release, plea, sentencing, or any parole proceeding."

Freeman's motion asked the court to compel prosecutors to make a formal motion regarding any victim who wanted to speak at trial pursuant to the CVRA, naming the victim, and providing a preview of the victim's statement. The court denied the motion to compel, and ordered additional briefing from the parties on the question of sanctioning Freeman.

The order described Freeman's motion as unwarranted and baseless. It stated that "Freeman's motion serves solely as a blatant attempt to intimidate the minor victim's mother," and that "Freeman should know that his client does not have a right to respond to a statement pursuant to the CVRA, and Freeman's intention to do so makes a mockery of the CVRA."

Freeman, however, claimed that the motion had been filed in good faith to address "a potential conflict between a defendant's due process rights and a victim's right to be heard ... under the [CVRA]." As a "zealous advocate," Freeman said that wanted to determine what facts might be brought out at sentencing by the child's mother, in case she brought up disputed or unreliable facts.

Even the government's response recommended that Freeman not be sanctioned.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the fine, noting that even if Freeman's motion was meritless and Freeman should have known it, the district court did not cite evidence to support its position that Freeman filed the motion to harass the victim's mother or that he acted in bad faith.

While this decision doesn't give lawyers license to skirt the line between zealous advocacy and unethical behavior, it may help lawyers acting in good faith avoid attorney sanctions if they become a little too zealous when representing criminal defendants.

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