After a hearing where both sides called the subject matter “a case of honesty”, the Missouri Supreme Court issued a quick judgement Tuesday afternoon to discipline an attorney over his own felony plea.
The bench announced that it found Nevada lawyer Dustin Dunfield guilty of professional misconduct in violating the Rules of Professional Conduct. The decision came just six days after arguments were presented before the court, an rare occurrence.
Dunfield represented himself before the high bench. Without elaborating, he stated he wasn’t able to get an attorney to agree to serve as his counsel.
Citing its own previous decisions, American Bar Association Standards for Imposing Lawyer Discipline, and aggravating and mitigating circumstances, the Court is suspending Dunfield’s license indefinitely with no allowance for reinstatement to be considered for one year.
His punishment stems from divergent statements he made regarding his criminal background over time, culminating when he ran for public office.
In 1996, Dunfield pleaded guilty to statutory rape and was given a two year suspended sentence and placed on probation for two years.
In 2007, he admitted on his application for law school in Arkansas that he’d pleaded guilty to the rape charges. And in 2010, he admitted to the same plea twice when he applied to become a lawyer in both Arkansas and Missouri.
But in 2014, he swore on a candidate declaration form that he had not ever pleaded guilty to a felony. At the time, Dunfield was running for county prosecutor in southwest Missouri’s Vernon County.
State law bars anybody who has been convicted, found guilty, or pleaded guilty to a felony from qualifying for public office.
Incumbent Prosecutor Lynn Ewing, who was also running for re-election, challenged Dunfield’s candidacy in court.
A judge determined that Dunfield had been found guilty of statutory rape and declared him ineligible to serve as prosecuting attorney. Dunfield’s name was ordered to be removed from the ballot.
Prosecutor Ewing then filed to have him punished before the state Chief Disciplinary Counsel.
A regional three-person Disciplinary Hearing Panel determined Dunfield had broken rules by stating he had not been found guilty in his candidate declaration form. The panel recommended that Dunfield be suspended from practicing law for two years, but with the suspension stayed, and replaced with a two-year period of probation.
The Chief Disciplinary Counsel disagreed and asked the Supreme Court to suspend Dunfield indefinitely, without an option to apply for reinstatement for one year.
Before the high court, Disciplinary Counsel Attorney Kevin Rapp said Dunfield had changed his position multiple times throughout the legal process surrounding him.
“He’s been all over the place, and offered different multiple explanations of whether or not he plead guilty,” said Rapp. “It’s basically whatever suits him at the time, being when you’re applying for admission to bar of facing disciplinary action, whether or not you plead guilty.”
Dunfield, representing himself, admitted he was wrong to have said he hadn’t pleaded guilty when filing for office, but contended he did so under good faith because he’d been advised that he wouldn’t be breaking any rules.
“I had spoken to a local judge,” said Dunfield. “(I) had talked to my former public defender, had gotten a hold of the Missouri Ethics Commission. Everyone that I spoke to was of the opinion that I could fill that form out in the negative.”
Dunfield confessed that he couldn’t confirm any opinion from the Ethics Commission because the commission had told him in writing that they wouldn’t issue a comment.
Dunfield’s fate may have been telegraphed by Chief Justice Zel Fischer, who questioned how he could declare he didn’t plead guilty, after stating that he did multiple times before he’d become a lawyer.
“So you’re trying to convince me that you got less informed, or less intelligent about what that question was asking you, after having gone to law school and consulted lawyers and a judge,” said Fischer. “That’s what I’m supposed to believe?”
In its Tuesday decision, the Supreme Court sided with the state’s Chief Disciplinary Counsel. In addition to his suspension, Dunfield will also have to pay a $1,000 fine.