Editor’s Note: This article was written from a first-hand account by David Tulis, a frequent contributor to East Ridge News Online.
City court on Tuesday slapped down efforts by a radio journalist to help a woman facing three criminal charges.
East Ridge Judge Cris Helton ordered David Tulis to sit down as he arose with defendant Christina Wright and stood next to her at one of two podiums afforded defendants and members of the public. Mrs. Wright is a mother of two daughters and works as fast food restaurant shift manager in Brainerd.
She faces three counts under the state transportation statute.
Judge Helton said that only an attorney can speak for a criminal defendant and that Tulis faces the prospect of being accused of the unlicensed practice of law in any attempt to speak on behalf of Mrs. Wright.
Judge Helton delayed her case to July 17 and scolded Tulis for an improper act.
Tulis, host of a morning talk show at 92.7 NoogaRadio, identified himself as Mrs. Wright’s “next friend” and asked if it was a criminal matter, and whether he could speak for her.
Judge Helton said Tulis could not address the court because he is not an attorney, and cannot represent the accused.
Tulis replied that he was not practicing law as he was not being paid to be her advocate. The accused has a right to have a person of her choosing speak for her, advise her, counsel her and assist her efforts to clear her name, Tulis insisted.
But Judge Helton said that doesn’t matter, as Tulis doesn’t have a law license.
Mrs. Wright is charged with driving under a revoked license, no insurance and an improper tag on a car. She says she has never had a driver license because the test is too hard. She is charged with “driving on revoked” because apparently had given a license by the state, which then revoked it administratively for nonpayment of court costs, fines and fees from earlier encounters with police.
Tulis said he immediately consulted the Lexis Nexis legal database at the UTC library to study the right to counsel issue.
The right to counsel is in the constitution (“ *** [I]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused hath the right to be heard by himself and his counsel *** ” Article 1, section 9) and in state law (“Every person accused of any crime or misdemeanor whatsoever is entitled to counsel in all matters necessary for the person’s defense, as well to facts as to law.” TCA 40-14-102).
“In a criminal matter,” Tulis said, “can a ‘next friend’ serve as counsel and representative, or can only a hired member of the judicial branch — a lawyer — serve as counsel?
“Mrs. Wright has no money to hire a lawyer, and she asks me to assist and counsel her. We’ll see if indeed Tennessee recognizes the generally absolute right to counsel of one’s choice in a criminal matter.”
As cities have civil jurisdiction only, traffic court is limited to exacting no more than $50 fine for an offense. The East Ridge court charges a $98.50 fee for a count. Mrs. Wright faces up to $445 in fines and costs if Judge Helton were to fine her with the maximum.
_ David Tulis, 92.7 FM 95.3 FM HD NoogaRadio