County public defender Hollynd Hoskins knows just how far five bucks can stretch: across five months, several law-enforcement departments and two counties.
Last July, Hoskins tried to give $5 for bus fare to a homeless, mentally ill client, a favor she's seen carried out many times before in other area courtrooms. But the goodwill gesture turned into trumped-up charges of the first degree, she says, when Arapahoe County authorities charged her with passing contraband to an inmate.
"It's very tough to be a public defender out here, because the DA's office and the sheriff's departments have this hard-line stance on everything," Hoskins says. "We call it 'Arapa-hell County.'"
Hoskins's troubles began during a court hearing for client David Caldwell. A homeless man with a bipolar disorder, Caldwell had been picked up in June for attempting to enter an unlocked parked car in Littleton; he told officers he planned to spend the evening in the vehicle. He probably would have been given a reprimand and a ride out of town, Hoskins says, but since Caldwell also told police that if he had found any change in the car he would have kept it, he was booked for first-degree criminal trespass, a felony.
Hoskins advised Caldwell to accept a misdemeanor guilty plea so he could avoid months in jail waiting for a trial. At his hearing on July 21, Caldwell's plea was accepted. Judge Dana Murray sentenced him to one year of unsupervised probation and ordered him to report to Aurora Mental Health Center for counseling and medication. Caldwell told the judge that he'd go there that afternoon, following his release from the county jail. Hoskins, concerned about her client's lack of cash and his mental condition (and the fact that the mental health center was several miles and a few bus transfers away), borrowed five dollars from a co-worker, showed it to Caldwell and told him she would put the money on his "books" at the county jail. He could pick it up on his release.
But at the end of the hearing, she says, she asked the deputy in the courtroom if she could simply give the cash to Caldwell right there. The deputy said she couldn't, and Hoskins gave the money back to her co-worker. (She never did give the money to Caldwell, and although he made it to Aurora Mental Health Center, he was refused treatment because he didn't have an Aurora address.)
Hoskins thought that was the end of it. But it wasn't.
Later that day, she says, she returned to court and found a pair of deputies shadowing her. The two then refused her entry into the jury box to speak to a waiting client. One deputy grabbed her client file and riffled through it. Stunned, Hoskins says she asked the deputy what was going on. He told her she was under consideration for charges and was not allowed to speak with her clients. The charges? Attempting to pass contraband to an inmate, a misdemeanor and a violation of jail policy. "I was shocked," Hoskins recalls. "The guy was out of control. I was blown away. We were all laughing, it was so bizarre."
But it was no laughing matter to the sheriff's department. Their office contacted Arapahoe County District Attorney Jim Peters, who asked Jefferson County District Attorney Kathy Sasak to look into the matter as an unbiased third party.
Meanwhile, Denver attorney Jeff Pagliuca was hired by the Arapahoe County Public Defender's Office to defend Hoskins."In my view, there was no evidence that Hollynd actually tried to give the guy the five dollars." What's more, he says, "If you have a homeless person with psychiatric problems who needs bus fare to get medical treatment, giving them five dollars would be something I think we would encourage, not discourage."
Captain Wayne Taylor, who oversees operations at Arapahoe County Jail, doesn't see it that way. "Money is defined as contraband when one's in custody," he says. "And it would be a safety and security risk if someone were to conceal it and get it in the housing area. He takes it down into a housing area, gambling ensues, favors are bought and sold for money. A few dollars in jail carries a big stick, so to speak. In the eyes of some of us, what she did violated the state law. Had we ignored that or ignored bringing that to the attention of the district attorney, we would not be doing our job."
Sasak finally issued a "no file" decision in November. "I looked at the law that could have been applied, and I determined that the facts would not support a jury conviction on the matter," she says, adding that in her fifteen years as a district attorney, she had never heard of contraband charges brought against a public defender for lending money to a client. She also says there was no proof that the money involved had actually changed hands. Even if it had, she says, "those facts would not be sufficient to have a jury say that that was a crime under these specific circumstances." Besides, she adds, "it's not a good combination to tell a person who is ill to get to a place where they need to be and not have any mechanism to get them there."
Taylor says that was hardly the case. "To imply that this guy would have been walking when he was released is totally wrong," he says. "We supply bus tokens to the indigent to catch the bus." (Hoskins says that since Caldwell had a Social Security check on his books, he was not considered indigent and was not given any tokens. The check, she points out, would not have done him much good on a bus.)
John Portman, head of the Arapahoe County Public Defender's Office, says he's heard of instances where deputies brought money to someone. "Unfortunately, this was not one of those deputies," he says. "This thing turned into some kind of witch hunt. Why, I'm not really sure."
Hoskins thinks the case was an attempt at "intimidation" by the sheriff's office stemming from her involvement in the defense of Alexander Pogosyan, who was convicted of killing five people on Labor Day last year. She says the case was a testy one in which the public defender's office lodged charges against county sheriff's deputies for allegedly taping conversations between Pogosyan and public defenders. (Pogosyan was eventually given five life sentences.)
The contraband charge, she also notes, came one day after a heated meeting between deputies and public defenders regarding courtroom security measures. Both Hoskins and Portman say the charge may have been a response to that meeting.
"That's baloney," counters jail captain Taylor. "We have nothing to be revengeful about. We have no ax to grind with the public defender's office."
So how much money was spent chasing after a five-dollar crime?
Mike Knight, spokesman for the Arapahoe County district attorney, says his office spent no money since it was investigated by Sasak. Sasak says she can't reveal how much time and money was spent on the case, either.
"I think the whole thing was a phenomenal waste of money," says attorney Pagliuca. "It was ludicrous. They were investigating this thing, literally, for months. And it was the kind of thing that could have been resolved with a conversation in the courtroom."
Six months after the alleged offense, Taylor wishes the whole thing would disappear. "All of us in the criminal-justice system must forget our little personal hangups and innuendos and work together," he says.
For Hoskins, that could be tough. She's still steamed.
"I guess I should just be quiet about all of this and let it go," she says, "but I'd rather stand up. The way the judicial system works out here is ridiculous. It's Arapahoe County justice, and the DA's office and the sheriff's office are accountable to no one. My case is just one example of the power they have and how they misuse that power. Taxpayers should know what they're paying for here."