Investigating the Only State Without Public Defenders
This article was produced in partnership with The Maine Monitor, a former member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
A lawyer working on behalf of the state of Maine continued to represent low-income defendants after being arrested for impaired driving in May.
The attorney, Suzanne Dwyer-Jones, was arrested by police in York, Maine, for driving while intoxicated after failing a sobriety test on May 10, police said. She posted bail and returned to work on May 12 at Biddeford District Court as the state’s lawyer for defendants who can’t afford to hire their own attorneys.
In the last decade, Dwyer-Jones has been charged with driving under the influence at least four other times and been convicted twice of operating a vehicle while intoxicated. A judge suspended her law license in 2013. Within days of being reinstated to practice law in 2015, she was given a job defending Maine’s poor.
Dwyer-Jones did not return an email from The Maine Monitor seeking comment. She is being charged with felony Operating Under the Influence and is scheduled to appear in York County Superior Court in Alfred on June 9.
Maine is the only state that does not employ public defenders. People who cannot afford to hire an attorney instead rely on the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, which contracts private defense attorneys like Dwyer-Jones to represent both adults and juveniles in criminal cases and other legal matters. The agency, run by only four people, has repeatedly been scrutinized for inadequate training and oversight of the attorneys it hires.
Eleven years ago the Legislature formed MCILS. Its first executive director, John Pelletier, was in charge for a decade and routinely hired attorneys with criminal convictions or histories of professional misconduct, including Dwyer-Jones, a joint investigation by The Maine Monitor and ProPublica found last October. The executive director has the power to remove or suspend attorneys.
Lawyers are required to notify MCILS within five days of being charged with any crime. Failing to report a criminal charge can result in an attorney no longer being eligible for court appointments, according to the commission’s rules.
Justin Andrus, the interim MCILS executive director, said Dwyer-Jones had not notified the commission of her new criminal charge and was no longer eligible to work on its cases as of May 20. Andrus became director in January and said he is still learning where he needs to be attentive, after being informed by a reporter of Dwyer-Jones’ recent charge.
Andrus has asked judges and the Maine Prosecutors’ Association for help establishing a protocol to notify MCILS when an attorney is charged.
“MCILS considers the need to address instances in which rostered counsel are charged with crimes integral to ensuring that our client base receives the quality of representation to which each client is entitled,” Andrus wrote in a separate statement. “While not every charge is necessarily disqualifying, MCILS will assess each charge it becomes aware of individually, and act appropriately to safeguard the rights of appointed clients.”
State Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, who serves on the Judiciary Committee with oversight of MCILS, said the arrest made it apparent that the agency does not have adequate staff or rules to oversee attorneys.
“When you are doing everything you can every day and things are still slipping by you, there’s a problem in the system,” Keim said. “It’s one the Maine Legislature needs to fix, and they haven’t been doing their job.”
Family members of a man who had Dwyer-Jones assigned to his case in 2017 said she didn’t show up to court and sent bizarre, confusing texts to excuse her absence. Despite their complaints about her conduct to the state’s licensing agency, Dwyer-Jones was allowed to keep practicing law and remained on the list of eligible court-appointed attorneys. Dwyer-Jones’ response to the family’s claim was kept confidential by MCILS, and she refused to answer questions by the news organizations. She was not disciplined or found to be deficient by the agency, MCILS records show.
Until her removal in May, Dwyer-Jones remained eligible to represent adult defendants facing domestic violence, drunk driving or drug offense charges, according to state records. She was also eligible to be assigned child protection cases in multiple York County courts earlier this year.
Even after being convicted of crimes or professional misconduct, attorneys have not routinely been removed from the MCILS roster. Pelletier suspended five attorneys during his decade-long tenure.
In April, Ian L’Heureux began appearing on MCILS’ list of approved attorneys for felonies, drug offenses and misdemeanors in Augusta, Bath, Wiscasset, Portland and Rockland superior courts. He had been banned from representing state defendants for at least a year in December 2019 for failing to report that he was facing criminal charges, records show.
L’Heureux was found guilty by a jury of assault in December 2019 and sentenced to a week in jail, according to court records. He had not informed MCILS that he had a pending assault case from December 2018 when he applied in August 2019, according to a termination letter by Pelletier.
L’Heureux did not return a request for comment. Andrus said he had no comment about L’Heureux’s recent approval to be a court-appointed lawyer.
The Legislature is considering three bills to reform MCILS, including a plan to open the state’s first trial-level public defender’s office and add personnel for training, oversight and auditing of attorneys. If passed, the changes would cost $11.7 million next year and $12.9 million the following year.
Gov. Janet Mills has not included substantial reforms for MCILS in any of her budget proposals this year.
Seacoastonline staff contributed to this report.