By Gretchen Schuldt
The detaining and chaining of a defense lawyer found in contempt of court Friday by a Milwaukee County judge sends a message that "undercuts a basic tenet of our justice system," a State Public Defender's Office (SPD) official said Saturday.
"We stand with our staff attorney who was simply going about his job serving as a strong advocate for his client," said Randy Kraft, SPD communications director.
Circuit Judge David Borowski ordered Assistant State Public Defender Puck Tsai into custody after Tsai reminded the judge of the presumption of innocence for Tsai's client and non-verbally revealed some frustration with the proceedings, which had led to his client being taken into custody, according to accounts.
Borowski declined to comment Saturday, saying the case was still pending. Tsai could not be reached for comment.
A similar incident last year in Las Vegas led to a judge being banned from the bench for life. In that case, Justice of the Peace Conrad Hafen ordered a lawyer handcuffed after she would not stop arguing on her client's behalf.
"The message this action sends to our attorneys, whose jobs are to be zealous advocates for the rights of their clients, undercuts a basic tenet of our justice system." – Randy Kraft, State Public Defender's Office
Tsai was representing a client who had been released on signature bond in August.
According to accounts by Tsai's colleagues, the SPD, and online court records:
The District Attorney's office on Friday requested cash bail for the defendant because a drug screen showed the man had too much water in his urine. That is a sign of potential tampering but is not proof of tampering.
Tsai argued against the request and Borowski cut him off. Tsai's frustration showed as the parties started to leave. Borowski called everyone back to their seats and made a stronger record for his decision. Tsai tried to argue again and reminded Borowski that the defendant was presumed innocent.
Borowski responded and ordered Tsai taken into custody.
Assistant District Attorney Michael J. Lonski – not court staff or the Sheriff's Department – alerted SPD that its lawyer was detained.
SPD lawyers were dispatched to the courthouse. When they got there, Tsai was brought back in belly and leg chains, as is standard procedure for criminal defendants in custody.
Tsai apologized to the judge at Borowski's request and was released.
SPD lawyers criticized the judge on social media in an unusually public rebuke of someone who may rule for or against them in the future.
The SPD office also was unhappy.
"The fact that our attorney was taken into custody, handcuffed, and belly-chained for doing his job is unacceptable," Kraft said. "The impact on our attorney and his client is of utmost concern to this agency. The message this action sends to our attorneys, whose jobs are to be zealous advocates for the rights of their clients, undercuts a basic tenet of our justice system."
And the defendant?
He got a new drug test.
It came back clean. He, too, was released.
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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