NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - A woman working with the Orleans Public Defenders has been falsely portraying herself as a licensed attorney in Louisiana, according to the district attorney’s office.
DA Leon Cannizzaro said Monday (June 24) his office was made aware by the Louisiana Supreme Court that Ashley Crawford was practicing law without a license.
Crawford joined the public defender’s office last September and appears to have worked on more than 100 cases across all 12 sections of Criminal District Court.
Cannizzaro said this is a criminal offense and a violation of public trust, but no charges have been filed at the time.
“We are investigating these allegations as a criminal matter and have requested that the Orleans Public Defenders preserve and deliver all evidence relative to this complaint,” Cannizzaro said.
He said his office would not comment any further on the case since it is still open.
The OPD said it is aware of the matter.
“Crawford isn’t appearing in court or representing clients on behalf of Orleans Public Defenders,” the office said.
Raphael Goyeneche works for the Metropolitan Crime Commission and said the responsibility falls squarely on the Public Defenders Office.
“You’re gonna hire someone as an attorney you want to make sure they’ve got a bar card form the state of Louisiana,” he said. “It’s inexcusable and it truly is a black eye for the criminal justice system in general, and in particular for the Public Defenders Office."
Derwyn Bunton, the chief of the public defender’s office, issued a letter to the judges at criminal court, acknowledging that Crawford is not authorized appear as an attorney.
“I apologize for any problems or disruptions this may cause,” Bunton’s letter states.
Crawford could face up to a $1,000 fine and two years in prison if she is charged. Plus, felonies are possible as the investigation proceeds.
Legal analyst Bobby Hjortsberg said practicing without a valid license is a serious offense and could seriously impact the results of the cases Crawford prosecuted.
“It is a crime. In fact, it’s a felony and it’s very possible that she’ll be charged with that crime and if she is, she’ll have to go through the process of facing those charges in court," Hjortsberg said. “There’s all kinds of implication involved in this, not just for her, personally but for all the cases she’s handled.”
Hjortsberg said it’s possible that every case Crawford has been involved with could be overturned.
“If she’s gone to trial and someone’s gotten convicted and she wasn’t a lawyer, that person almost certainly will have that conviction overturned," he said. "Any plea that she handled will potentially be suspect and will have a right to be brought back to court.”
Joel Friedman, a law professor at Tulane, said he expects the DA to pursue charges against Crawford -- likely involving accusations of fraud and falsely portraying an attorney.
“It would not surprise me that the District Attorneys Office would investigate and prosecute her, and they will prosecute her hard, for both of these things, because they will have to send a message that this is absolutely intolerable,” Friedman said.
Additionally, Friedman called it shocking that the public defender’s office hired Crawford as an attorney in the first place.
“Because all they have to do is call the Bar Association, and they would say 'I’m sorry there is no one at the Bar Association by that name. That would have taken about three minutes to discover," Friedman said.
According to a source familiar with this case, the DA sent a letter to the Public Defender’s Office, requesting all evidence be preserved and turned over to the District Attorney’s Office.
The source also said the DA sent a separate letter to Crawford, advising her to hire an attorney.