An Austin criminal-defense solo got his client a sweetheart deal—10 years probation—for driving while intoxicated and aggravated assault on a public servant, only to watch the client sentenced to jail for 45 years after allegedly committing another offense months later.
Now the lawyer, Chris Dorbandt, has successfully fought off attempts by the client to win habeas relief based on ineffective assistance of counsel claims, to begin an attorney disciplinary matter and to recover civil damages for alleged professional negligence and defamation.
Dorbandt estimated he’s handled 7,600 criminal cases, including 400 to 500 felonies, but said this is the first time a client has attacked him this way. He said after initial client meetings he was wary of the client, Steven Paul Wilson, and decided to be extra careful with the case.
“I know I’m dealing with somebody who knows the system. He knows how to wire the system. But I also know the system—mostly better than him, so I wasn’t going to get worked around,” said Dorbandt. “I just wanted to carefully do everything correctly on my case, so if he did complain later, there wouldn’t be any grounds for me having done anything wrong.”
Dealing with the fallout has been annoying and somewhat stressful, Dorbandt said, but the outcome was exactly what he expected.
“My advice is to always be careful and methodical in the way you handle clients. Oftentimes you have to know what kind of client you are dealing with. It takes some judgment to recognize the client and what their capabilities are,” he said.
Ruined Plea Deal
The Third Court’s opinion in Wilson v. Dorbandt said that in May 2009, Wilson was driving drunk and he hit a police officer with his truck while he was fleeing apprehension. Wilson hired Dorbandt, who helped resolve the matter in August 2009 with a plea deal in which Dorbandt pleaded guilty to the third-degree felony DWI—Wilson had three or more past DWI’s—and first-degree felony aggravated assault on a public servant charges. He received deferred adjudication of 10 years probation for the assault, and was convicted of DWI and sentenced to five years of concurrent probation.
“I told him, basically, ‘Now is the time for you to change your life,'” Dorbandt recalled. “I think I did a great job for him. He doesn’t think that, but I do: After all this many [penitentiary] trips and a new felony—including a first degree—to put someone on probation for it. If he successfully completed his probationary period, that case would be dismissed.”
But the opinion said just four months later, Wilson was caught trafficking illegal drugs and the state revoked his probation and prosecuted the assault charge. Dorbandt represented Wilson again. Wilson judicially confessed and plead true to the allegations that he violated his probation by possessing marijuana.
In April 2010, the trial court revoked his probation. The state asked for 60 years in prison, but Dorbandt asked for leniency. At sentencing, the court heard evidence that Wilson had a criminal history of drug charges spanning back to 1985. Wilson was sentenced to five years for the DWI and 45 years for the assault charge. The judge told Wilson he had gotten a sweetheart deal and blew it, and the court was tired of excuses.
“Maintaining that the blame lay instead with Dorbandt’s lawyering, Wilson, pro se, began a series of efforts aimed at obtaining judicial relief based on claims of ineffective assistance of counsel,” the Third Court wrote.
In appeals of both his convictions, Wilson alleged Dorbandt provided ineffective assistance of counsel. During an April 2013 habeas hearing, a judge rejected Wilson’s arguments, and so did the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Wilson filed a grievance against Dorbandt with the State Bar of Texas that was dismissed, the opinion said.
In April 2014, Wilson filed the civil lawsuit against Dorbandt, who denied all of the allegations. Dorbandt filed a motion for summary judgment that claimed that Wilson had no evidence for elements of both claims. The district court granted summary judgment in July 2014.
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