Last week, George Zimmerman’s former attorneys, Hal Uhrig and Craig Sonner, appeared at a press conference and made some startling statements about their notorious ex-client that left some wondering if they breached the attorney/client privilege.
The concept of attorney/client privilege is clear. It means that anything you tell your lawyer, any actions you undertake with regard to the legal problems with which you find yourself and any strategy plotted to deal with said problems are all confidential. The lawyers may not discuss such things, and the clients would do well to keep quiet too in order to preserve the privelege.
Uhrig and Sonner may have unwittingly wronged their client when they appeared before national media outlets to say they were concerned for Zimmerman because he was "not doing well emotionally" and "may not be in complete control of what's going on." They were offended that Zimmerman had reached out to conservative talk show host Sean Hannity without their consent, and then called Special Prosecutor Angela Corey who refused to speak to him.
Discussing their client’s mental state and declaring that he may not be in control of his own actions could injure their client’s case. Revealing that Zimmerman has not been in contact with them made it sound that Zimmerman may be in the wind, a claim that, while not true, appeared to make the special prosecutor hasten the decision to arrest him.
The rules of confidentiality are clear. According to The American Bar Association’s rules for professional responsibility “a lawyer shall not reveal information relating to the representation of a client unless the client gives informed consent.” Since, by their own admission, Zimmerman has not spoken to them, it appears that consent may not have been given to these lawyers in this scenario.
The Florida Bar rule is almost identical to that of the ABA and these rules stay in place even after the lawyer/client relationship has ended. At the end of the day “Lawyers are officers of the court and they are responsible to the judiciary for the propriety of their professional activities” (Florida Rules of Professional Conduct).
So, did the actions of Uhrig and Sonner defy this rule and are their actions egregious enough to be considered unethical?
The fact that Zimmerman called Angela Corey indicates the actions of a desperate and ill-informed defendant. Defendants and prosecutors don’t have a speaking relationship for good reason. Prosecutors who speak to those represented by counsel are doing themselves a disservice just as much as they are the defendant. Anything a defendant says to the prosecutor could be considered inadmissible, threatening the state’s case. The defendant has a constitutional right to keep quiet and not talk to authorities outside the presence of counsel for good reason. It benefits both the defendant and the prosecutor.
Sonner, who had agreed to take Zimmerman’s case pro bono until such time as he may be charged with a crime, revealed “I know his phone works, but he’s not returning my text messages or my calls.” Uhrig went on to clarify that Zimmerman had told prosecutors that he did not have any lawyers, only legal advisors. “I’m not sure what the distinction is, but in his mind there’s a distinction,” Uhrig said. He went on to state that Zimmerman was “not in the state of Florida.”
CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said the press conference was “one of the wackiest news conferences I have ever seen” and called it a “bizarre episode” that may force the special prosecutor to arrest Zimmerman to prevent him from running. In fact, that appears to be just what happened because within hours of the “bizarre” press conference, Special Prosecutor Angela Corey did indeed charge Zimmerman with second degree murder.
At the end of the interview, Uhrig and Sonner assured Zimmerman via the airwaves that they would be happy to continue on as his legal team. After the “help” they have given him thus far, perhaps it is wise he chose Mark O’Mara instead.