Criminal defense attorneys have a variety of legal duties. Generally, they are obligated to keep communications between themselves and their clients confidential. They owe their clients zealous defenses, but also have separate duties to courts to present all defenses in an honest manner. Criminal defenses also must avoid conflicts of interest, which generally means they cannot represent multiple parties in the same criminal matter.
Criminal defense attorneys generally must maintain privilege, or privacy, regarding attorney-client communications. Privilege allows clients to safely speak to their attorneys without fears of reprisals, but there are exceptions. Privilege does not apply if clients use their attorneys’ advice to commit crimes. Generally, attorneys may break privilege pursuant to court orders or to prevent deaths or bodily injuries. Clients also may waive their right to privilege. And, when clients die, prior attorney-client communications generally lose privileged status.
A criminal defense attorney has a duty to zealously represent her client by taking all reasonable steps to prepare a viable defense. She must gather facts, interview witnesses, review police reports, subpoena documents, and research case precedents and statutes. Attorneys may also request courts to consider new and novel interpretations of existing law to support their client’s interests. Attorneys should be prepared to examine witnesses at trial and to prepare compelling arguments for judges and juries.
Conflicts or Interests
Criminal defense attorneys have a duty to avoid conflicts of interests when representing their clients. For example, if several accountants are accused of criminal fraud their defenses may include shifting blame to one another. Attorneys cannot implicate one client to help another. Attorneys must also ensure that past clients do not create conflicts in current cases. For instance, an attorney may not be able to adequately attack a witness if the two of them previously shared an attorney-client relationship.
Honesty to Courts
A criminal defense attorney, like all lawyers, is an officer of the court and owes a duty of candor to judges and juries. He may not knowingly make representations to courts that are untruthful. He is required to be as honest as possible when communicating with courts. He cannot support clients who commit perjury. Attorneys must take reasonable steps to remedy known perjury by clients, which may include lawfully breaking attorney-client privilege to report it.