A prominent Santa Barbara defense attorney accused of tampering with and photographing an opposing prosecutor’s notes during a recent DUI trial has been cleared of any wrongdoing. Darryl Genis, facing three allegations in a contempt-of-court complaint, emerged victorious after an hour-long hearing Friday afternoon in front of Judge Donna Geck. “This is a classic case of why you hire good lawyers even when you’re innocent,” he told reporters outside the courtroom.
In her ruling, which she said she was “reluctant” to give, Geck declared that the allegations had not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. She provided no further explanation. The official counts were “abusing the process of the court by willfully deceiving the court,” “violating rules of court by photographing opposing counsel’s trial notes,” and “abusing the process of the court by interfering with the opposing counsel’s trial notes.” Each carried a potential $1,000 fine or five days in jail.
The charges arose out of a June 9 incident in Judge Brian Hill’s courtroom that was caught on surveillance camera. Pointing to that visual evidence and transcripts of the hearing, Hill alleged in the contempt filing that Genis had snapped a picture of prosecutor Justin Greene’s papers with his cellphone before hiding a document under a stack of files. Genis denied the allegations at the time, and his attorneys during this week’s hearing — Michael Fremont from San Diego and Donald Bartell of Riverside — reiterated his innocence to Geck.
Fremont and Bartell presented a number of arguments for why the statements and exhibits included in the contempt-of-court complaint should not be considered as evidence, claiming hearsay, lack of foundation, information not provided under oath, questionable authenticity of the surveillance video, and so forth. They also argued that when Hill initially confronted Genis with Greene’s accusations, it was unclear what exactly Hill was alleging — the judge’s language was vague and incomplete, said Fremont and Bartell — and that Genis had every right under due process to defend himself against the charges at the time. That denial, they said, could not be construed as “deceiving the court.”
Genis’s defense attorneys also argued that the surveillance footage failed to prove Genis had taken a picture as no flash could be seen and no one in the courtroom testified to seeing the attorney use his phone to capture an image. Geck, who appeared incredulous if not slightly impatient with Fremont and Bartell’s arguments during the hearing, said she “couldn’t agree” no photo was taken. Geck also interjected when Bartell said there was no evidence that Genis had touched Greene’s materials. “How can you say that?” Geck asked in reference to the video footage.
Fremont and Bartell also stated that in trials, exhibits belong to the court, not to individual lawyers, and that attorneys frequently pick up and move documents from each other’s tables. They also noted that Genis’s supposed actions took place during a recess in the proceedings, and that while Genis had been admonished by Hill in a previous trial to not record with his phone, Hill only specified video and audio recordings, not still images. Even if Genis had touched Greene’s notes, they went on, it didn’t interfere with Greene’s ability to continue prosecuting the case when they came back from recess and so wouldn’t amount to “abusing the process of the court.” Geck, at the time, appeared unconvinced. “But what justification does he have to touch anything?” she asked.
Nevertheless, Geck’s ruling came swiftly and decisively, and Genis and his attorneys celebrated in the courthouse hallway afterward. Fremont said it was unfortunate that the court and the District Attorney’s Office had made such strong accusations in the first place, and he said he hoped all parties could move forward. Fremont explained “things happen” in the “heat of the moment” of trial, and that it’s not uncommon for lawyers to lose their temper or “make stupid statements.” Even so, he went on, whatever acts Genis carried out didn’t justify the charges, and the video didn’t show the evidence of what the allegations claimed.
When asked what the video did show him doing, Genis coyly responded, “I was collecting a piece of evidence,” before Bartell cut him off and said his client would not be issuing any more statements.
In February, a judge with the State Bar of California recommended that Genis be suspended for 90 days for committing misconduct and “multiple acts of wrongdoing” in two unrelated cases. Genis has appealed that ruling, as have State Bar attorneys, who argue the recommendation is too lenient. A ruling on the appeals is pending.