Monday, October 9, 2017
The Springfield (Mo) News-Leader reports
A Springfield attorney was disciplined Thursday by the Missouri Supreme Court in connection with an armed confrontation in Reeds Spring and questionable accounting in 2012.
Rita K. Sanders faces the indefinite loss of her law license, though that suspension was put on hold on the condition Sanders' completes two years of probation that requires quarterly reports and additional controls on her practice, according to a court order.
Sanders' discipline case involved two distinct matters in 2012. The first count against her was in connection with her involvement in a fugitive hunt in Stone County. The second pertains to concerns about Sanders' accounting practices involving client funds.
The suspension and an accompanying $1,500 fee comes after Sanders was found to have violated several rules of professional conduct. Sanders initially argued against probation, instead asking for a reprimand with certain requirements, according to court documents.
Sanders currently represents one of several people suspected in an April 2016 killing in Webster County and recently argued that charges against her client should be tossed.
Hunting a fugitive in Reeds Spring
In May 2012, Sanders was helping search a Reeds Spring motel room for a fugitive. With her were a bond agent and the Reeds Spring chief of police.
Following that, Sanders and the bond agent followed a tip that another fugitive was in a Reeds Spring motel room and notified local law enforcement that they were on their way south. They met the local police chief at the Reeds Spring City Hall, according to court documents.
After obtaining a key from the motel's manager, Sanders and the police chief drew their guns and entered the room, according to court documents. They saw "an apparently naked woman" alone in bed and yelled at her to prove she was unarmed, the state's brief say, and Sanders watched her while the chief checked the bathroom.
The fugitive was gone. Sanders and the chief put their guns away.
The bail bondswoman "understood that she had no authority to stay in the room because her bonding authority required her to leave the premises if the fugitive absconder was not there," the state wrote. "But, (she) and Sanders stayed and interrogated (the naked woman) about (the fugitive's) whereabouts."
Sanders was a law enforcement officer previously but no longer was in 2012. Still, court documents say, she described herself as being in "police mode" while in the motel room and taking the naked woman's phone out of her purse.
Upon dumping out the purse, Sanders and the bonding agent found no weapon or working phone but did find a pouch containing methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. She later said she was looking for a phone number in the pouch and among the contents of the purse.
"I went through every paper in her purse," Sanders recalled. "We were looking for anything and everything that might lead us to this man that we knew was extremely dangerous."
Sanders' attorney claimed that the police chief "essentially deputized" Sanders and told her several times to "back him up." By doing so, Sanders' argument went, she was acting legally as part of a posse.
The state's counsel argued Sanders could not legally act as part of a posse because she was aiding a city police chief, not a county sheriff. Missouri law specifically endows sheriffs with power of rustling up a posse.
As a result of the incident, Sanders was charged with kidnapping, armed criminal action, unlawful use of a weapon, and fugitive recovery, court documents say. She eventually pleaded guilty to peace disturbance.
Multiple accounting issues
In a less dramatic retelling, the state outlined instances in which Sanders' trust account went into overdraft status on at least two occasions. Sanders was cautioned to "avoid further risk to (her) clients' funds and additional disciplinary investigations" after the first overdraft in March 2012.
After the second, the state's disciplinary counsel office found "no violation but poor recordkeeping and failure to supervise her staff," according to court documents. Sanders was advised multiple times to study accounting fundamentals.
In August 2014, however, there was yet another overdraft notification stemming from Sanders' accounting practices, the state said. This time, Sanders' initially blocked the state from her records and complained about an ensuing subpoena.
Once again, the state found "no misappropriation" but did find inadequate recordkeeping, commingling of personal funds with clients' money and "numerous undocumented transfers."
In response, Sanders' attorney noted she had "a high volume traffic and criminal practice" who had "no trust account problems until 2012 when the bookkeeper she had retired."
Sanders admitted to commingling money but blamed staff for the first accounting error and a delayed deposit on the second. She rehired the old bookkeeper, court documents say.
"Clearly a reprimand with conditions is an appropriate sanction in this case to protect the public, maintain the integrity of the profession, promote confidence in the disciplinary system and to provide consistency in the discipline imposed," Sanders' attorney argued.
The Missouri Supreme Court disagreed and determined Sanders' violated no fewer than five attorneys' rules.
Sanders' side of the story
When the News-Leader asked for an interview and outlined the events in the court documents, Sanders did not dispute most facts. But she offered information that doesn't appear in court documents and expressed her frustration with the situation.
"I was rather disappointed in the outcome because, quite frankly, I did absolutely nothing wrong out there in Reeds Spring," she said.
Sanders said she was initially only there to serve as a driver for her friend, described as so vision impaired that she "sees three of everything at night."
The two had tried to contact the Stone County Sheriff's Office but were told no deputies were available, Sanders said. When the pair rendezvoused with the Reeds Spring police chief, Sanders said he recognized her by name as a former law enforcement officer. The two had never met, Sanders said.
Before going into the motel room, the police chief asked Sanders whether she would back him up. She said she had her snubnose with her in her car and couldn't say no when the chief asked her to serve as back-up.
"What do you say?" Sanders said. "It's illegal to refuse to obey a lawful order. I didn't know what to do. They make it sound like I was out there playing Jane Wayne."
"I'm a grandmother," she continued. "The last thing I wanted to do was to go into a motel room when I didn't know how many people were in there. ... I didn't have a choice."
Sanders concurred that she had gone through the purse but says she never searched the room itself. She hung around the motel after being in the room she said, but only to speak with the motel manager and invite her to church.
She never again saw the woman, who Sanders believes was the tipster who called in the fugitive's location in an attempt to claim a reward. The fugitive later went to prison and testified in Sanders' favor at a hearing, she said.
Sanders acknowledged the accounting errors but said nobody was hurt and no checks were bounced. She wasn't trying to play any accounting tricks but was just trying to move money the right way and didn't quite understand what was expected, she said.
"It destroyed me," Sanders said of the aftermath. "It destroyed my life. It destroyed my business."
She figured that pleading down would make her problems go away, but she says that hasn't happened. Though she welcomed the chance to share more information, she wasn't optimistic that talking to a reporter would make a difference.
"I'm really frustrated about the system right now," she said. "I've spent my whole life fighting for justice."
"Jiminy Christmas, how about a break here?"
Hat tip to coolcrosby. (Mike Frisch)