Posted on Oct 25, 2013

A scheme that allegedly involved a private investigator in Louisiana bribing prosecutors in exchange for more favorable plea deals in drunk-driving cases could throw a wrench into hundreds of DWI cases.

Lafayette Parish District Attorney Michael Harson insists all of the plea deals are valid, according to this article from a Baton Rouge newspaper. Even if bribes led up to the deals, the defendants knowingly waived their right to an attorney, he said.

Three former employees of the district attorney’s office have pleaded guilty in the case, the newspaper reported.

But defense attorney Barry Sallinger isn’t buying it. He has filed a lawsuit on behalf of one man whose case was involved in the alleged scheme, with the goal of getting the plea deal thrown out. Sallinger said the 24-year-old had no idea the $5,000 he paid private investigator Robert Williamson would be used as a bribe. Instead, he thought the money was a legitimate legal fee, Sallinger said.

Why would defendants who supposedly got a sweet deal now want it thrown out? At least five of them have been subsequently arrested for driving while intoxicated. Because of their earlier pleas, they face more severe penalties for the second offense.

Sallinger’s argument is that the pleas which occurred in response to bribes were not valid because the defendants were effectively denied the right to an attorney and were instead represented by Williamson, the private investigator. An attorney could have looked at those earlier cases and perhaps challenged them, he said.

If the lawsuit is successful, Sallinger said that could pave the way for legal challenges to all of the plea deals Williamson was allegedly involved in. Federal prosecutors handling the case against Williamson have not specified the number of DWI pleas they think Williamson assisted with. But court documents filed in the case against Williamson allege the scheme ran from 2008 to 2012.

Williamson allegedly paid members of the district attorney’s office more than $70,000 as part of the scheme and also gave them gifts, such as a New Orleans Saints hat. In exchange, Williamson’s clients allegedly got plea deals that allowed for quicker resolution of their cases and immediately reinstated their driving privileges.

This is truly a strange situation, and the facts aren't entirely clear. For instance, were the defendants represented by the investigator or an actual lawyer. And if the investigator represented them, did he falsely hold himself as a lawyer? You also wonder how strong the cases were - if you're falling down drunk and your case gets dismissed you might wonder how that happened. If they did know a bribe was involved, I don't see how they can come back and challenge the cases.

Just goes to show that sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.

Walter Reaves
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Criminal Defense Attorney Walter Reaves has been practicing law for over 35 years.