A New Orleans public defender is being investigated over allegations that she represented clients in more than 100 cases despite being unlicensed to practice law in Louisiana.
“Our office has been made aware by the Louisiana Supreme Court that Ms. Ashley Crawford of the Orleans Public Defenders office has been falsely portraying herself as a licensed attorney in Louisiana,” District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said in a statement released Monday.
If charged and convicted of practicing law without a license, Crawford could face up to $1,000 in fines and two years behind bars, WGNO reports.
Cannizzaro said Crawford apparently worked on cases “across all 12 sections of Criminal District Court,” which he called “both a criminal offense and a violation of the public trust in the criminal justice system.”
The Orleans Public Defenders’ Office said it was aware of the allegations against Crawford and said she “isn’t appearing in court or representing clients on behalf of Orleans Public Defenders,” according to WVUE.
Derwyn Bunton, chief of the public defender’s office, wrote in a letter to criminal court judges that “I apologize for any problems or disruptions this may cause,” WVUE reported.
Bunton said last week that the office got a complaint that Crawford may not have been licensed in the state, WDSU reports.
The district attorney said a criminal investigation is ongoing.
“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. “As this is an open case, we have no further comment at this time.”
The New Orleans Advocate reported that attempts to reach Crawford were unsuccessful, and that “she began working for the Orleans Public Defenders in September, according to a Facebook page that vanished from public view after a reporter contacted her.”
A school spokesperson confirmed that Crawford earned a law degree from Loyola University in New Orleans in 2016, according to the Advocate.
Cases involving Crawford could be impacted, one legal expert said.
“There’s all kinds of implication involved in this, not just for her personally, but for all the cases she’s handled,” legal analyst Bobby Hjortsberg said, according to WVUE. “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 … Any plea that she handled will potentially be suspect and will have a right to be brought back to court.”
Loyola University law professor Dane Ciolino said that if Crawford is found to be unlicensed, each case will be “looked at on a case-by-case basis to see whether she provided substandard legal advice and whether that advice caused prejudice to a client,” the Advocate reported.
“It doesn’t turn into an automatic ‘get out of jail free’ card,” Ciolino said, according to the newspaper.