HOUSTON – You turn to them when your freedom is on the line.
But what if the criminal lawyer you hired to defend you isn’t allowed to practice law?
Not only did the The KHOU 11 News I-Team find it happening, we also uncovered that the courts are skipping a simple step that could protect clients.
Clients like Stanley Denney.
“I’ve been coming to court now since October, and been getting jacked around every time,” explained Denney.
For months he’s tried fighting a drunk driving charge, but says his attorney kept missing court.
“I'd try to call her all day long,” said Denney. “I couldn't get a hold of her.”
And Denney’s not alone.
We found Rodolfo Garza Jr. pacing nervously outside a courtroom.
Garza was also looking for his lawyer.
“She goes MIA all of a sudden and I’m left hanging,” Garza told the I-Team.
He says it’s been happening since last summer as he’s fought an assault charge.
“Unreliable, man,” Garza said when asked about his lawyer. “Very, very unprofessional.”
But the I-Team discovered something about that attorney that Garza didn’t know.
It turns out Erin Elizabeth Stanley’s law license was administratively suspended.
“Oh (expletive)!” said Garza when the I-Team told him the news.
He said Stanley never told him her license wasn’t valid.
The State Bar of Texas says Stanley’s license was administratively suspended in February, 2013 after she defaulted on a student loan.
But court records show not only did Stanley continue practicing law, she also kept appearing in court, defending at least seven different clients, and taking on new clients like Garza.
“And she kept taking your money?” the I-Team asked Garza.
“Yeah, smoothly,” he said.
It’s the same lawyer and a smiliar story for Denney.
“I already paid her $1,500 and I don’t have an attorney now,” Denney said after learning Stanley’s license was suspended when he hired her.
So the I-Team tracked down Erin Stanley and asked her why she was practicing law when her license was suspended.
“Oh, I have no comment,” Stanley said.
We got the same response when we asked her about taking money from clients during her suspension, and about not showing up for clients’ court dates.
“Don’t these people who have paid you money to represent them deserve some answers?” The I-Team asked Stanley.
“Well, they can speak with my attorneys then,” Stanley told us. She wouldn’t tell us who was representing her.
South Texas College of Law Dean Gerald Treece says what the I-Team discovered is a hole is the system that needs to be fixed.
“The one person you can count on, your champion, your warrior is your lawyer,” Treece explained. “You've got to be certain that that lawyer is one who has the blessing from the State Bar of Texas.”
Yet last year the State Bar of Texas found 23 cases of attorneys practicing law with suspended licenses.
The organization provides daily updates to an on-line list of ineligible lawyers and reminds court officials to check it to make sure attorneys on the list aren’t practicing.
So the I-Team asked Judge Marc Carter how it could happen.
“It is a violation of the Judicial Code of Conduct for me to talk to you about that case,” Carter told the I-Team.
Records show that in May, 2013 another attorney filed a motion alerting the court that Stanley’s license was suspended.
It was a red flag that apparently was missed.
That’s because months later, Stanley was back in Carter’s court still practicing with a suspended license.
“Why do you want me to violate the Code of Judicial Conduct?” Carter responded when the I-Team asked him about what happened.
But it turns out Stanley’s problems don’t stop there.
Last summer she was arrested and charged with felony possession of methamphetamine.
So what happened next?
Stanley made bail, and, clients say, went right back to practicing law in Harris County’s courts.
“No apologies? No regret for what you’ve done?” The I-Team asked Stanley.
“I’m not going to make any more comments,” she replied. “That’s all I can tell you.”
Days after we talked with Stanley she was arrested and charged with another count of drug possession again.
To protect yourself when hiring an attorney, the State Bar suggests checking its website to make sure that lawyer is eligible to practice.