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Public Defender Jeff Adachi faces off with SF judge over contempt charge for attorney defending client

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Attorney John Paul Passaglia speaks with San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, left, before his hearing at San Francisco’s Hall of Justice Friday, September 29, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi faced off with a San Francisco Superior Court judge Friday while defending one of his own attorneys, who is accused by the judge of disobeying his orders in a previous court hearing.

John Paul Passaglia, an attorney with Adachi’s office, faces five days in jail and a $1,000 fine for allegedly failing to step away from his client after Judge Ross Moody ordered him to do so in a hearing Sept. 14.

Passaglia said he did not defy the judge’s orders, but that he was in shock and “reacted to an unethical demand” when his client was allegedly wrongfully taken in custody during the hearing. His client remained in jail Friday.

Passaglia also accused Moody — who presided over Friday’s hearing for Passaglia’s contempt charge — of retaliation against him and other attorneys who witnessed the incident. Moody did not respond to much of the accusations in court Friday, and instead will submit a written statement with his decision in Passaglia’s contempt case.

Several dozen lawyers and representatives from the Public Defender’s Office, as well as supporters for Moody, packed the courtroom Friday during the hearing.

Passaglia said that Moody twice threatened to jail his client, Michael Bayanos — a 55-year-old Filipino immigrant with limited English speaking skills — when Bayanos “took too long” to enter a plea. Bayanos is accused of misdemeanor theft for stealing a bottle of perfume, Passaglia said.

At that hearing, Bayanos entered a “no contest” plea for petty theft and was assisted during the hearing by an interpreter.

“He was in the process of giving up his rights as part of the plea and during the plea the court asked whether or not he spoke English,” Adachi said Friday, adding that Moody allegedly grew frustrated when Bayanos requested a Spanish language interpreter.

“At this point, the judge says, ‘You are this close to finishing the plea or going into that holding cell, do you understand?’” Adachi said.

According to court trasncripts, Bayanos responded that he understood. Moody then addressed Bayanos a second time, asking in English, “Do you want to finish that plea and walk out that door or do you want me to put you in custody?”

Moody then advised Bayanos of his immigration rights, informing him that a “no contest” plea could result in the 55-year-old man’s deportation, before ordering court deputies to take Bayanos into custody, court records indicate.

Passaglia said he was caught off guard by the order and stood next to his client with his arm around him, even when Moody ordered him to “move away.”

On Friday, Adachi argued that Passaglia was justified in advocating for his client and that Moody’s decision to jail Bayanos was “unethical and illegal.”

“You can’t just take someone and put them in jail because they refuse to plea [because] it’s perceived by him as a threat that he will be taken into custody if he doesnt finish his plea,” Adachi said. “It’s completely unethical and beyond the judge’s power to do that.”

In a transcript of a hearing held the day after Bayanos was taken into custody, during which Passaglia asked for Bayanos’ releasee, Moody stated that Bayanos had acted “in a threatening manner towards the interpreter” during the prior hearing.

Adachi also argued that the charges brought against Passaglia were an act of retaliation by the judge. Another attorney who witnessed Bayanos’ arrest said that two days prior, on Sept. 12, she was defending a client in a case that Moody was presiding over and during which Moody threatened her client with jail time after her client asked for a speedy trial.

Dozens of employees from the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office flood into Department 17 prior to a hearing at San Francisco’s Hall of Justice Friday, September 29, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

After delivering a statement in support of Passaglia, the attorney alleged that Moody asked to verify her legitimacy as an attorney by asking for her state bar number.

“He is essentially retaliating against anybody who is complaining against him. Which is a no no,” Adachi said.

He continued, “This has been brewing for some time. When you have a judge who is abusing his power no one wants to say anything about it because judges are so powerful and they are going to retaliate.”

Passaglia said he believes that the contempt of court order issued by Moody was an act of retaliation. The charge came after Passaglia filed a habeas corpus writ — a court order demanding that Moody show a valid reason for Bayanos’ detention — the day after Bayanos was taken into custody during a plea hearing two weeks ago.

Passaglia said Moody argued that Bayanos was incompetent and therefore took him into custody.

“The problem with incompetency is it stalls the proceedings and now Mr. Banayos is just wasting away in jail on an attempted stealing of a perfume,” Passaglia said. “He could be in jail for who knows how long.”

On Friday, Moody remained silent as Adachi delivered Passaglia’s version of the altercation, responding only to Adachi’s suggestion that cameras be installed in courtrooms.

“We should [install cameras],” Moody said. He did not immediately respond to Adachi’s request to withdraw his contempt of court order against Passaglia.

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