A Utah man is suing his public defenders after he says they schemed to get an arrest warrant to put him in jail.
The lawsuit stems from a hearing in March 2018, where Luis Sanchez was scheduled to be in court for charges alleging he drove drunk more than three years prior.
Sanchez was supposed to be there at 9 a.m., but he alleges in a lawsuit filed recently in 3rd District Court that his court-appointed attorneys, Daniel Torrence and Heather Chesnut, called his case early — at about 8:45 a.m. — so that a warrant would be issued for his arrest.
“Let’s call it and get a warrant,” Torrence whispers to Chesnut, according to a video of that day in court. “Is it time? 8:40. OK. Four minutes. 8:45.”
After a few minutes, the attorneys stand at a podium and tell the judge they are ready to go on Sanchez’s case. But because he wasn’t there, a warrant for his arrest was issued.
Sanchez said in an interview that he thought the public defenders wanted him in jail because he had wanted to challenge the charges.
“From the beginning, they didn’t want me to fight the case,” he said. “They were pressuring me to plead guilty. At one point, I had to file my own motions.”
The man said he had been a little early to court that morning, and had spent a few minutes waiting in his car to kill time. It was 9:07 a.m. by the time he got through the long security line and into the West Jordan courtroom that was overflowing with other defendants and attorneys waiting for their cases to be called.
“When I arrived, I didn’t think anything was wrong at all,” Sanchez said. “I was outside, right in front of the courtroom for four or five minutes before people made space. As soon as I walked in, I didn’t see my attorneys. I just waited and waited.”
By 9:17 a.m., Sanchez had spotted Chesnut, who told him that a warrant had been issued. He was arrested about an hour later, and put into a holding cell. When it was time for him to appear before the judge, Sanchez questioned when his attorneys had called his case.
“Could I just know what time the warrant was issued?” Sanchez asked, his hands cuffed behind him. “What time did my attorney leave?”
“You can ask your attorney about that,” Judge Katie Bernards-Goodman responded. “But we didn’t issue it until after nine. And you’re here way after that.”
Sanchez spent two weeks in jail before he was able to post bond. He wanted to keep fighting the case, he said, but eventually pleaded guilty because of financial issues — his brother paid the bond amount for him, he said, and needed the money back.
Sanchez eventually requested a recording of that day in court and said he was shocked by what he saw.
“I was outraged,” he said. “I completely lost trust in the system.”
Mike Skolnick, an attorney who represents the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association and the public defenders named in the lawsuit, said Friday that Sanchez’s lawsuit was “not well-grounded in fact or law.”
“Mr. Sanchez’s complaint omits important factual context and misstates several key facts,” he wrote in an email. “We anticipate vigorously defending against Mr. Sanchez’s claims.”
Skolnick would not elaborate on particular misstatements.
Michael Teter, the lawyer who represents Sanchez in his civil lawsuit, said his client’s public defenders violated the man’s trust.
“Public defenders take an oath to represent their clients and to serve and defend them,” he said. “In many ways, the actions by Luis’s attorneys amount to nothing less than a betrayal.”
Sanchez is seeking an unspecified amount in monetary and punitive damages, and for attorney fees. He alleges that Chesnut and Torrence committed legal malpractice, abused the court process and violated his rights to due process.
Sanchez’s arrest, the lawsuit alleges, caused him serious harm. He not only spent significant time in jail, he lost wages, his reputation was damaged and it caused him emotional distress.
Sanchez said he worries that something similar has happened to other defendants, and said he hopes his lawsuit and sharing his story will encourage others to come forward.