Shelby County Public Defender Intern Helps Bridge the Justice Gap

“Law students have the potential to stand in the gap for indigent members of our community … those who need help removing the collateral consequences of a prior criminal conviction.”

— Phyllis Aluko, Assistant Shelby County Public Defender.

It’s one thing for a law school intern to shadow an attorney or even help prepare cases.  But it’s quite another to appear before a judge.  Third-year law student and intern with the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office, Bryant Kroll, argued on behalf of a client for the first time last week.

Kroll was eligible to receive a limited practice license from the Tennessee Supreme Court, which allows him to litigate under the supervision of a licensed attorney. Interns like Kroll do not handle criminal cases that public defenders typically take. Rather, these lawyers-in-training are able to help manage some of the fallout from criminal convictions — such as loss of driving privileges. These are issues that public defenders, already facing staggering caseloads, typically do not have the bandwidth to address.

But the series of events that can follow a criminal conviction, called “collateral consequences,” can have a crippling and lasting effect on a person.  Long after incarceration has ended, loss of basic privileges, a criminal record and a host of other, often unforeseen, disproportionate burdens can weigh on a person long after he’s served his time. These consequences can prevent people from securing work, moving about the community, obtaining business licenses and benefits, and, of course, voting.

Rethinking the internship program to fill this gap is part of an effort by the public defender’s office to give law students experience in the courtroom while helping people who need legal assistance.

These are civil issues, but they still have a big impact on the client’s life,” says Aluko. “It’s a permanent revocation for so many people unless attorneys step in the gap and help them out.  Providing that type of  service helps to make a difference in the lives of a lot of people. Plus, it assists in the training of our interns.  It’s about building capacity for our office, our interns and our clients.”

“I Made Some Bad Mistakes. I Paid for Them.”

Shelby County Public Defender intern, Bryant Kroll, speaks with his client.
Shelby County Public Defender intern Bryant Kroll (left) speaks with his client.

It’s been nearly 15-years since he stopped drinking. While incarcerated, an Alcoholics Anonymous program provided the roadmap to a sober life. Now, this 71-year old Shelby County man wants to get his driver’s license back.

You need your own transportation. To go to the grocery store, you need transportation. My grandkids get sick, I need to pick them up. I need transportation. The bus just don’t do it.

He was classified a Habitual Motor Vehicle Offender (HMVO) for driving on a revoked license after a DUI.  He was also incarcerated for another DUI. That’s when he went through the 12-Step Alcoholics Anonymous program and stopped drinking.

He says he’s a different person now.  Has been for years, and his clean record these past few years demonstrates that.  But his HMVO status means that he can’t get his license back. It also means that putting a key in car ignition can mean another felony and jail time.

This civil petition has felonious consequences,” says Kroll. “You can’t vote, can’t drive and in this city with limited bus routes, especially for an elderly gentleman, carrying groceries on a bus — it’s not right. It underscores the importance of this. People need to know this.”

While researching the case, Kroll and Aluko found good cause to petition for removal of their client’s HMVO status: He’s maintained a clean record for five years, successfully completed rehab and there are compelling reasons for him to drive again — a sick wife and an opportunity to support his family.

My wife is really sick.  She had a kidney transplant. She needs transportation back and forth to the doctor.  I need transportation to pick up my medication.  My son opened up a restaurant, and I’m working with him. I need to drive to pick-up food and make deliveries.  To get back and forth to the restaurants and to pick up different items.  That will help me at home with my expenses. The things you can do when you’re driving are far better than when you are walking.”

Kroll successfully argued the case before the judge.  His client must still repay old court fees and satisfy all the necessary requirements to get a driver’s license.  But for the first time in many years a man has hope …  that he can move through life more freely, support his family and live with dignity.

Related links

Use this interactive tool to understand the collateral consequences in your state

Read about the Shelby County Public Defender’s innovative ‘Street Court’ program