The Vermont Supreme Court on Friday dismissed charges filed by Bennington County prosecutors against an inmate accused of improperly filing legal papers while volunteering as a "jailhouse attorney."
In a unanimous decision, justices said authorities had no legal basis to charge Martin "Serendipity" Morales, an inmate at Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland who helped at least five inmates file legal briefs.
In February 2016, the Bennington County State's Attorney's Office, with the help of the Vermont Attorney General's Office, invoked an obscure statute to charge Morales, who is serving time for burglary and domestic assault, with practicing law without a license.
Authorities said that Morales refused compensation for her work — including an offer of food from one inmate — and did not identify herself as an attorney.
So-called jailhouse lawyers are common throughout the country. The Vermont Department of Corrections provides law libraries to ensure that inmates can pursue legal claims. Non-attorneys frequently represent themselves in criminal and civil courts, and have even won appeals before the state Supreme Court.
"Individuals in prison with some legal knowledge have, for years, frequently helped less sophisticated inmates with legal matters, usually without facing prosecution for the unauthorized practice of law," Justice Beth Robinson wrote in a 15-page ruling. "Many important prisoners' rights cases were initially filed by prisoners who were not represented by lawyers."
"The credit for this victory belongs to Serendipity Morales," said Vermont Prisoners' Rights Office attorney Emily Tredeau, who represented Morales. "The court emphasized the fact that Serendipity refuses payment for her work. She is motivated by her love of the law and desire to help others."
"As the court noted, an inmate who relies upon the advice of a jailhouse lawyer may end up in a worse situation than if he or she had done nothing at all," Burke said Friday. "The Supreme Court has now made clear, however, that protection from this harm for inmates is not of criminal concern. Everyone agreed that the Supreme Court needed to clarify what constitutes unlawful practice of law. This case has provided some of that clarity."