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Communication with Represented Criminal Defendant

Adopted: April 14, 1995

Opinion rules that District Attorney may not communicate or cause another to communicate with represented defendant without the defense lawyer's consent.


A criminal defendant, represented by an attorney, initiates personal contact with the district attorney who is prosecuting the charges against him. The criminal defendant tells the district attorney that the attorney representing him is not counsel of his choice, was selected by someone else, and is not representing his interests. The criminal defendant further says that the attorney is advising him to keep quiet and that he (the criminal defendant) believes the attorney is a "watchdog" for other conspirators in the criminal enterprise of which the criminal defendant has been a part. The criminal defendant expresses a willingness and desire to cooperate with the State but says that he will do so only if the State agrees that his attorney not be told he is cooperating.

May the district attorney engage in a period of communication with, and accept the cooperation of, the criminal defendant, without revealing the communication and cooperation to the criminal defendant's attorney? What should the district attorney do in response to the criminal defendant's contact?


No, the district attorney may not engage in such discourse with the criminal defendant. The Rules of Professional Conduct prohibit communication and cooperation between the district attorney and a criminal defendant whom the district attorney knows to be represented by counsel. Rule 7.4(a) provides that a lawyer "shall not....(c)ommunicate or cause another to communicate about the subject of the representation with a party the lawyer knows to be represented by another lawyer in the matter, unless the lawyer has the consent of the other lawyer or is authorized by law to do so."

However, the district attorney need not, and indeed, should not turn a deaf ear to the criminal defendant's complaint. The Rule does not prohibit confidential discussions with a person seeking another opinion on his legal situation. Rule 7.4, comment. And, in dealing with "a person who is not represented," a lawyer always is permitted to advise the person to secure counsel. Rule 7.4(b). Furthermore a district attorney has a special duty to "(m)ake reasonable efforts to assure that the accused has been advised of the right to and the procedure for obtaining counsel and has been given reasonable opportunity to obtain counsel." Rule 7.3(b).

Thus, confronted with the contact described above, the district attorney should inform the criminal defendant that he has the absolute right to an attorney who will represent only his interests, that he may discharge the attorney who is representing other interests, that the Court will appoint an attorney to represent his interests if he cannot afford to employ one, and that the district attorney will assist in having him brought before the Court so that the discharge and appointment may be accomplished.

The situation is different where the criminal defendant's complaint to the district attorney is that he has no lawyer but that an attorney is claiming to represent him. In that circumstance, ethical considerations do not prohibit communications between the district attorney and the criminal defendant, since Rule 7.4(a) applies only where the district attorney knows the party to be represented by counsel. Even there, however, the district attorney still has a special duty under Rule 7.3(b), to assist the criminal defendant on gaining access to counsel.

In addition, in either situation, the district attorney may have a duty to inform the North Carolina State Bar of the misconduct of the criminal defendant's attorney. Rule 1.3 requires a lawyer to report misconduct when he or she has "knowledge that another lawyer has committed a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct that raises a substantial question as to that lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects." The criminal defendant's allegations, as described in the inquiry, are of misconduct in the extreme, involving possible violations of Rule 1.2(c) (dishonesty and fraud), Rule 1.2(d) (prejudice to the administration of justice), Rule 5.1 (conflicts of interest), Rule 5.6 (fees from third parties), Rule 6(b)(3) (nondiligent-representation), and Rule 7.1(a)(2) (prejudice or damage to client). The Rule does not require a lawyer to report "every violation" of the Rules of Professional Conduct, but only those "that a self-regulating profession must vigorously endeavor to prevent." Rule 1.3, comment. Here, the allegations clearly raise "a substantial question" about the attorney's fitness within the meaning of Rule 1.3. If the quality of the allegations and information are sufficient to imbue the district attorney with "knowledge" of violations, rather than a mere suspicion of them, then he must report the attorney to the State Bar.

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