A group of Clark County defense attorneys is backing a colleague who was handcuffed in Las Vegas Justice Court this week.
On Monday, Justice of the Peace Conrad Hafen directed a court marshal to restrain Deputy Public Defender Zohra Bakhtary in his courtroom. The Clark County Defenders Union criticized the judge’s actions Thursday in a letter to news outlets.
“Judge Hafen improperly handcuffed one of our public defenders simply for doing her job,” according to the letter, signed by a 12-member board of directors. “His actions were unreasonable and unprecedented. Judge Hafen was wrong.”
The union represents about 105 lawyers from the Clark County public defender’s and special public defender’s offices, said its president, Ryan Bashor.
A surveillance video made public Thursday shows Hafen pointing to a court marshal and then at Bakhtary, standing at the defense table in Courtroom 6A. The video does not capture any audio.
Court transcripts indicate that Hafen told Bakhtary to “be quiet,” as she tried to argue that a man facing larceny charges should not be thrown behind bars. After Bakhtary tried to speak, the judge asked her if she wanted to be found in contempt.
There was a brief exchange between the judge and lawyer before the marshal approached Bakhtary, who placed her hands behind her back, and put her in handcuffs. Bakhtary was led out of the frame, while the defendant, Daniel Fernandez, stood alone in a white, short-sleeved shirt at the defense table.
Moments later the same marshal walked up behind the defendant and took him into custody. Fernandez was ordered to serve six months in jail for a larceny charge that he picked up after being ordered to perform community service on other similar charges.
“Go ahead and un-cuff Zohra,” the judge then stated, according to court transcripts. “I think she’s learned a lesson.”
The defense group wrote that with Bakhtary in handcuffs, Fernandez was denied his right to an attorney.
Hafen “violated one of our most sacred, fundamental, and constitutionally protected rights,” according to the letter.
About three minutes after being led away, Bakhtary walked back into the frame, her hands free.
In an interview with the Review-Journal earlier this week, Hafen said he ordered Bakhtary handcuffed because “there needs to be proper decorum with attorneys.” The judge could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Bakhtary, who has worked about once a week in Hafen’s courtroom for three years, said she “did not act unprofessionally. I simply wanted the Court to listen to my argument and consider it before remanding my client.”
Prosecutor Jake Villani said Bakhtary had been given a chance to argue for her client and was interrupting the judge’s ruling.
“My recollection is consistent with the transcripts,” he said. “The judge gave her ample opportunity and warning before taking action.”
Public Defender Phil Kohn has said that an audio/video system, known as JAVS, should have been turned on while the judge was holding court. Hafen said he does not use the system because of potential technological glitches, and the court reporter’s transcript is the official court record.
“There’s nothing unusual about JAVS being disabled in that courtroom,” Villani said. “I’m not aware of a Justice Court that uses the JAVS system actively.”
In Thursday’s letter, the defense group wrote that the transcript “appears incomplete.”
Bakhtary said that after she was released she asked the judge for a break because she was shaking and wanted to call her boss.
The judge denied her request and asked her to continue with her caseload.
That exchange should have been captured in the transcripts, Bashor said, though it is unclear whether proceedings were on the record at that point.
“I can understand why it may not be included,” Bashor said. But “the more thorough thing, in the union’s position, would have been to include the aftermath.”
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