Duty Calls

Membership has its privileges -- but for this sheriff's deputy, a lawyer wasn't one of them.

But no matter how often you examine that January 1997 document, it simply serves up more of the same bland legalese. Here's Article 3, 3.4: Defense of Criminal Actions. "A participant shall be entitled to legal representation for duty-related criminal actions initiated against the member for incidents arising within the course and scope of the member's employment through the trial court's stage to a cap of $100,000."

Armed with that, Clendening hired another lawyer, Scott Jurdem -- this time to file suit against the Denver Sheriff's Union and the CPPA for breach of contract. Sheriff's union attorneys Ron Podboy and Mike O'Malley got busy researching the contract and wound up suing Bruno, Bruno & Colin, and the law firm was soon added to the list of defendants in Clendening's case.

And so last week, Clendening finally got his time in a Denver courtroom with a Bruno, Bruno & Colin attorney -- even if David Bruno was on the other side.

Initially, explains Jurdem, he saw this as a bad-faith insurance case, analogous to a situation in which a driver pays benefits to an insurance company that then refuses to pay up after he's hurt in an accident. But an earlier judge didn't buy that one. So in court, Jurdem argued that under the Colorado Consumer Protection Act, the law firm and the CPPA had engaged in deceptive trade practices -- essentially a bait-and-switch. The jury didn't buy that, either.

But jurors did find that both the CPPA and Bruno, Bruno & Colin had breached the contract obligating them to provide legal representation to Clendening, and they awarded him just under $11,000 -- the amount he'd had to pay a lawyer to defend him on those "duty related criminal charges." The Denver Sheriff's Union was exonerated, having lived up to its promises -- including the promise to provide a lawyer.

The problem came when the law firm decided not to do its duty -- after having collected a thousand times the amount the deputy had confessed to stealing.

Bruno's attorneys had argued that stealing was not part of the duty of a law enforcement officer. But no crime is considered part of an officer's duty, Jurdem countered; if the provisions of LD2000 were construed that way, Bruno, Bruno & Colin would never represent anyone.

And in fact, the firm has never defended anyone under article 3, 3.4, the criminal defense provision. The firm says that's because Jurdem's client was the only one to ever ask for representation.

But Bruno, Bruno & Colin has certainly defended cops who've been charged with making mistakes -- criminal mistakes -- on the job. David Bruno's in the process of defending one right now, as his attorney pointed out in closing arguments last Thursday. Clendening's duty-related crime cost the city a couple hundred bucks; Joe Bini's cost the city a whopping settlement -- and Ismael Mena his life.

The verdict in the Clendening case is likely to inspire appeals; with the In Re: Sather decision released in May, the Colorado Supreme Court indicated it may take a much harder line with attorneys regarding their professional responsibilities, particularly regarding fee agreements. But that's the high court. In the court of public opinion, the verdict's already in.

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