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Contempt Order Against Attorney Is Thrown Out

June 04, 2004|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

A Los Angeles judge should not have held a defense attorney in contempt of court and thrown him in jail for aggressively representing his client, according to a court ruling made public Thursday.

The decision threw out the contempt order issued by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ruffo Espinosa.

Deputy Public Defender Michael Pentz did not display any "disorderly, contemptuous, or insolent behavior," and Espinosa violated Pentz's due process rights, according to the decision by Orange County Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Didier.

Contempt of court is a drastic measure that should be used only when necessary to maintain law and order, Didier ruled. Every lawyer has a duty to protect the interests of his client, he wrote, and a judge cannot stop him from doing so.

The contempt order was issued during a Feb. 5 sentencing hearing in the case of Charles Netterville, convicted of assault with a deadly weapon. At the hearing, Espinosa announced his offer to sentence Netterville to three years in prison.

Pentz began to discuss Netterville's mental condition, but Espinosa told him he was wasting his breath, according to court papers. Pentz then started to talk about what he believed was an appropriate sentence. Espinosa said he had already made up his mind.

"One more peep out of you and you're in contempt of court," Espinosa told the attorney.

After Espinosa sentenced the defendant, Pentz objected to the "cavalier way with which this court ..." The judge interrupted and fined him $50. Pentz asked for a hearing and the judge raised the punishment to $250 or five days in jail. Pentz said he was ready to surrender, and he was taken into custody. He was released that same day.

In the contempt order, Espinosa wrote that he felt at the time that "immediate punishment was imperative."

The Los Angeles County public defender's office challenged the order. It also filed a complaint with the state Commission on Judicial Performance.

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