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Court disbars Md. defense lawyer who compelled guilty plea

A unanimous Maryland high court has disbarred a young attorney who essentially compelled his immigrant client to plead guilty to a drug trafficking offense without investigating her credible defense of duress, considering the immigration consequences of her plea or filing a motion to suppress the evidence of contraband.

John Xander Yi, who had been in practice for less than three years at the time, also failed to return a promised portion of his client’s retainer and misled bar counsel, the Court of Appeals said in stripping him of his law license.

“Mr. Yi failed to adequately prepare a defense and ultimately pressured the client, against her better judgment, to plead guilty,” Judge Robert N. McDonald wrote recently for the high court.

“The representation was replete with elementary errors, such as failing to review the state’s discovery with the client, not fully advising her of the plea deal offered by the state, and failing to refund a substantial portion of the prepaid fee that was clearly owed to the client under his own retainer agreement,” McDonald added. “The serious nature of the violations in this case does not portend well for those who might seek Mr. Yi’s legal services in the future. While we take no pleasure in shutting down the career of a nascent attorney, our duty to protect the public requires a sanction of disbarment.”

A deeply distressed Sirlis Portillo de Espinoza sought Yi’s representation after the Beltsville resident was charged with importing a package of cocaine as well as possessing the drug.

Yi accepted an $8,000 retainer to be her defense counsel, $3,000 of which would be returned if the client pleaded guilty at least two weeks before trial. If a plea was reached closer to trial, the client would get $1,500 back under the agreement.

Portillo de Espinoza showed Yi text messages confirming that Guatemalan drug dealers had threatened harm to her and her family if she did not take possession of the package.

Yi, however, ignored this evidence and also declined to pursue a constitutional challenge to law enforcement’s discovery of the drug, the high court said. Yi also told his client she had three options: plead guilty, move to another state or return to Guatemala, the court added.

In addition, Yi told his client that a guilty plea could result in a lighter prison sentence, community service or probation but never mentioned potential immigration consequences such as deportation, the court stated.

Portillo de Espinoza pleaded guilty in Montgomery County Circuit Court on Nov. 10, 2016, to possession with intent to distribute cocaine. Prior to her scheduled sentencing in December, Portillo de Espinoza was told she was not being properly represented by Yi and terminated his representation, the high court said.

The Maryland public defender’s office, having taken the case from Yi, was able to get Portillo de Espinoza’s plea withdrawn and a jury subsequently found her not guilty. Yi did not refund the $3,000 Portillo de Espinoza was owed under the retainer agreement, the high court said, citing the findings of Joan E. Ryon, the Montgomery County Circuit Court judge it assigned to review the Attorney Grievance Commission’s disciplinary charges against Yi.

In issuing its disbarment order, the high court accepted Ryon’s conclusion that Yi had violated Maryland Attorneys’ Rules of Professional Conduct concerning competence, scope of representation, diligence, communication and fees, as well as having made misrepresentations to the commission’s bar counsel regarding money owed to Portillo de Espinoza.

“The regulation of attorneys through the attorney disciplinary process is not so much a matter of crime and punishment as one of consumer protection,” McDonald wrote. “A law license authorizes an attorney to advise, or advocate on behalf of, another person at the most critical junctures of life. A minimal level of competence, diligence, and forthrightness is not just an ideal but essential to the task of serving those who seek the lawyer’s assistance.”

Bar Counsel Lydia E. Lawless declined to comment Monday on the court’s decision. Yi’s attorney, Herbert Dubin of Rockville, did not immediately return a message Monday afternoon seeking comment on the ruling.

The Court of Appeals issued its decision Aug. 21 in Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. John Xander Yi, Misc. Docket AG No. 21 September Term 2019.

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