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Lawyer-owned mug shot tabloid piques Ethics Committee

Sylvia Adcock//November 19, 2010//

Lawyer-owned mug shot tabloid piques Ethics Committee

Sylvia Adcock//November 19, 2010//

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By SYLVIA ADCOCK, Staff Writer

[email protected]

You’ve seen them for sale at convenience stores and gas stations – those tabloid-size papers that feature the confused and dazed countenances of everyone who has been arrested that week, a parade of mug shots with criminal charges listed below each picture.

 In the Triangle, Charlotte or Triad areas, the tabloid is The Slammer, published by Isaac Cornetti of Raleigh, a 30-something entrepreneur who says he’s trying to entertain and inform.

But in Pitt County, a tabloid called the Jailbird that bills itself as “your local weekly mugshot newspaper,” was until recently was owned by two Greenville defense attorneys.

The ownership of the publication by defense attorneys came to the attention of the N.C. State Bar’s Ethics Committee, which discussed the implications at its meeting last month.

A response to an inquiry written by the State Bar staff noted that “each individual in the publication is involved in a judicial proceeding. There is a potential effect on the administration of justice in each person’s case. … The name of the publication itself suggests that the individuals featured are habitual criminals. Ownership of the publication by lawyers calls into question the profession’s commitment to the idea that individuals are presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

The issue in Pitt County is now moot as the attorneys no longer own the Jailbird, and the committee put on hold an opinion that would forbid attorneys with a financial interest in such a publication from representing anyone who had appeared in it.

The matter will be considered again at the committee’s January meeting.

The Bar did not identify the lawyers who owned the publication. But according to public records filed with the Secretary of State’s office, attorney Timothy E. Burch is listed as the registered agent for The Jailbird LLC. The filing for the company, dated June 2009, also listed the same address as Burch’s Greenville law office.

Burch did not respond for requests for comment prior to deadline.

Materials presented to the committee noted that the publishing company had a managing editor and the lawyers were not responsible for the content of the publication, other than to direct that the mug shot of everyone who was processed through the county detention center be included. And the lawyers also included a disclosure statement about their financial interest in the publication in every fee agreement given to a potential client who was processed through the county detention center.

Some committee members expressed surprise that any attorney would have anything to do with such a publication.

“Usually the first question a client asks after ‘what’s going to happen to my case?’ is how to keep it out of the paper,” said Darrin Jordan of Salisbury.

James Woodall, district attorney for Chatham and Orange counties, called the publications “horrible” and said, “I was getting a haircut in Durham, and people were sharing pictures. People in the barbershop were talking about how, ‘Oh, gosh, look how drunk he is.'”

Committee members said it would be difficult for someone who publishes a tabloid like The Slammer or the Jailbird to represent someone whose picture had appeared in the paper because the issue could come up in voir dire.

Alice Mine, chief legal counsel to the committee and assistant executive director of the State Bar, cautioned that the organization had to be cognizant of an attorney’s constitutional rights and the right to engage in professional transactions.

“To say they can’t own a business would subject ourselves to potential litigation,” she said.

The committee ultimately decided to defer publication of the proposed opinion – that lawyers who own such a publication can’t represent anyone who has appeared in it – until the divestiture was confirmed. That has since been confirmed, and the committee will review the matter at its January meeting.

The proposed opinion also says it’s OK for lawyers to advertise in the publications so long as the ads aren’t misleading.

Meanwhile, the cover of the latest issue of the Jailbird – which has features such as “Smiling Mugs” and “Ladies’ Mugs” – says, “Jailbird Under New Ownership.”

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