April 28, 2021 Adventures in the Law

Poster’s Remorse

By Norm Tabler

Winston Sitton’s Facebook page identified him as a lawyer. Although he had never met Lauren Houston, he had been Facebook friends with her for about a year. He knew from her posts that she was going through a difficult break-up with Jason Henderson and feared his abuse and harassment.

Lauren posted a legal question on her Facebook page: “I need to always carry a gun with me now, don’t I? Is it legal to carry in TN in your car without paying the damn state?”

Eager to help a lady in distress (and perhaps flaunt his legal knowledge), Winston posted the reply that it was better to carry a taser or a canister of tear gas. But, he added, “If you get a shotgun, fill the first couple of rounds with rock salt, the second couple with bird-shot, then load for bear.” (How many times did he expect Lauren to shoot Jason?)

Warming to his subject, he went on, “If you want to kill him, then lure him into your house and claim he broke in with intent to do you bodily harm and that you feared for your life.” He added, “Even with the new stand your ground law, the castle doctrine is a far safer basis for use of deadly force.”

As so often happens after a hasty post, Winston had second thoughts˗˗call it poster’s remorse. Accordingly, he posted, “As a lawyer, I advise you to keep mum about this if you are remotely serious. Delete this thread and keep quiet. Your defense is that you are afraid for your life˗˗revenge or premeditation of any sort will be used against you at trial [italics added].”

If Winston thought that advising Lauren to delete the conversation would shield him from repercussions for his legal advice, he was mistaken. It would prove to have the opposite effect.

Lauren obediently deleted the conversation, but not before Jason had read it, taken a screenshot, and turned it over to the district attorney, who alerted the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility.

In advance of his hearing before the Board, Winston filed what Webster’s could use to exemplify the term Hail Mary Pass: a motion to exclude the Facebook posts from admission into evidence. Once the Board stopped laughing, it denied the motion.

The Board found that Winston had violated the Rules of Professional Conduct ”…by counsel[ing] [Lauren] about how to engage in criminal conduct in a manner that would minimize the likelihood of arrest or conviction.”

What about Winston’s direction that Lauren delete the conversation? The Board gave it the “most weight” of the several aggravating factors. It recommended to the Tennessee Supreme Court that Winston’s law license be suspended for 60 days.

That court asked the Board and Winston to brief the case. Winston’s defense was somewhat schizophrenic: Yes, he was merely attempting to aid a lady in distress; but no, his advice wasn’t serious, merely sarcasm or “dark humor.”

The court was not amused, noting that Jason might have been maimed or killed; that Winston had encouraged Lauren to use premeditated deadly force in the guise of self-defense; and that Winston’s posts created a public perception that the judicial process is corrupt, with lawyers acting as co-conspirators to aid clients in manufacturing false defenses to criminal charges.

Winston’s license was suspended for four years: one year of active suspension, three years on probation. That should provide Winston with the opportunity to reflect on the folly of doing in public what a lawyer shouldn’t dare do in private.

The case is In Re Winston Bradshaw Sitton, BPR#018440, Tenn. Sup. Ct. (2021)

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Norm Tabler

Indianapolis, IN

Norm Tabler is a retired lawyer in Indianapolis. He serves on the editorial advisory boards of the ABA Senior Lawyers Division’s Voice of Experience and the ABA Health Law Section’s The Health Lawyerwrites a monthly column for the Indiana Bar Association’s Res Gestae and is host of the American Health Lawyers Association’s podcast, The Lighter Side of Health LawEmail Norm.