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Attorneys see conflicts on SD drug court teams

An attorney on Mitchell’s new drug court team represented one of the first offenders referred to the court, raising a conflict-of-interest problem that is familiar to other drug courts in the state.

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Mitchell attorney Donna Bucher is on the James Valley Drug Court Team. The team oversees the clients assigned to drug court and makes recommendations regarding client disciplinary measures and behavioral awards. Drug court is an intensely supervised treatment program overseen by a team of professionals, including a judge, attorneys, treatment counselors, court services and law enforcement, with the aim of keeping nonviolent, drug-and-alcoholaddicted offenders out of prison.

One of Bucher’s clients, Chelsey Lutz, 21, was recently sentenced to drug court.

The Daily Republic asked Bucher if she will sever ties with Lutz and other clients who enter drug court. Bucher did not provide a yes or no answer.

“They are no longer my clients once they enter drug court,” Bucher said.

Despite repeated attempts by The Daily Republic to clarify whether that means Bucher will actually drop her representation of clients when they enter drug court, she declined to be more specific.

“I’m a part of a team when I’m on the drug court,” she said. “I don’t represent anybody when I’m a part of that team.”

She declined to discuss the matter further, saying “What happens in drug court is confidential, so I guess how I handle it is confidential.”

She also declined to comment on whether it is a conflict of interest for her to participate in drug court team decisions regarding any current or former client’s sanctions or incentives.

An attorney involved with the Northern Hills Drug Court in Sturgis, meanwhile, said defense attorneys and public defenders are a “tro ubling aspect of drug court.”

Bruce Hubbard, a defense attorney who serves on the Northern Hills Drug Court Team, said in Sturgis it happened twice in 90 cases that he had a conflict of interest regarding a client sentenced to the probationary treatment program while he was still in private practice. Hubbard is now retired and no longer has that issue.

He sat down with the clients and advised them that if they entered drug court, he would no longer represent them because of his position on the drug court team.

He said resolving the issue with the clients prior to them entering drug court is the simplest way to handle the situation.

To avoid any appearance of favoritism when the drug court team discussed his former clients, Hubbard said he also stepped out of the team meetings and didn’t participate in the discussion.

He said there is no rule at this point that defense attorneys must drop clients if they enter drug court, but he said the question is cropping up due to newer drug courts in Mitchell and elsewhere.

He said there needs to be uniformity in how attorneys handle clients placed in drug court.