Drug Task Force: Cavalier Counsel

January 10, 1994

There seems to be a great deal of confusion in the Carroll County State's Attorney's office over the policy of notifying confidential informants of their right to be represented by a lawyer. Despite the confusion, the pattern is clear -- prosecutors routinely ignore the rights of Carroll citizens who volunteer to become informants.

Barton F. Walker III, an assistant state's attorney who works on the county's Narcotics Task Force, testified in court that "it is not my position to advise [an informant] one way or another" to get a lawyer. Meanwhile, deputy state's attorney Edward M. Ulsch told Circuit Court Judge Francis Arnold the one piece of advice the state's attorney gives is "you can get an attorney."

The fiasco surrounding the case of Michael Cartwright, an informant working for the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force, clearly illustrates the problems created when legal representation is treated as an afterthought. Cartwright, a convicted burglar, volunteered to "work for" the task force in consideration of a recommendation of leniency for a traffic violation. No contract was drawn. The task force gave him vague assurances that they "would take care of him."

Cartwright now faces a possible jail term for driving on a revoked license because the state's attorney didn't "take care" of him. Not that it ever should have. Cartwright should have taken care of himself by having his own attorney present during the negotiations with the task force. Cartwright then would have known what was expected of him and what he realistically could expect from the task force. He also should have had everything in writing. A 20-year-old doesn't usually know these things; an attorney would.

At least one other informant had an experience similar to Cartwright's. These informants may not be Boy Scouts, but their right to effective representation in the criminal justice system is beyond question. It is scandalous that the state's attorney's office, which is sworn to uphold the law, takes such a cavalier approach to legal representation.

Given the power of the state to deprive people of their freedom and property, it is only right that people who are in a position to lose either of them should have someone looking out for their interests. That's why the founding fathers included the right to counsel in the Sixth Amendment.

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