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Law license of longtime Missouri marijuana legalization advocate suspended in conflict-of-interest case

Law license of longtime Missouri marijuana legalization advocate suspended in conflict-of-interest case

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court Building in Jefferson City pictured on Wednesday, June 30, 2021. Photo by Colter Peterson,

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday suspended the law license of a Columbia defense attorney who has long been one of the leading figures in efforts to legalize marijuana in Missouri.

Dan Viets, who has led the Missouri chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, will be able to apply for reinstatement of his law license in six months after the court sided with the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel in a conflict-of-interest case against Viets.

The Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel said Viets violated rules of professional conduct regulating conflicts of interest when he represented a brother and sister in a 2011 criminal marijuana case.

Siblings David G. DePriest and Natalie DePriest, who were living in Farmington when they were arrested, were both sentenced to state prison in 2013 for marijuana cultivation and for possession and intent to distribute a controlled substance, the Daily Journal Online reported.

Court records say marijuana plants and a gun were found in David DePriest’s room and that marijuana and drug paraphernalia were found in common areas of a rented condominium the two shared.

Records say Natalie DePriest was often away from the condo and spent about 20 days there that summer.

A case summary said prosecutors offered various plea deals. Some offers stipulated the siblings either testify against each other or not in favor of the other sibling.

The summary said the siblings agreed to a deal that included prosecutors dropping a weapons charge as well as an unrelated charge against Natalie DePriest in exchange for her entering an open plea to the marijuana charges.

The deal required David DePriest to plead guilty to all charges.

David DePriest received a 22-year prison sentence, while Natalie DePriest was sentenced to 15 years, according to the case’s summary.

The Missouri Supreme Court vacated their sentences in 2017, the Daily Journal reported then. After that, the state’s Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel took disciplinary action against Viets, according to court records.

In addition to suspending Viets’ law license, the Supreme Court also fined Viets $1,000 to cover investigative costs.

Court rules generally prohibit “concurrent conflicts of interest” and state one exists if “the representation of one client will be directly adverse to another client” or if “there is a significant risk” the attorney’s work for one client “will be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client.”

If there is a conflict of interest, the rule says attorneys may represent clients if certain conditions are met and the clients give informed consent in writing.

The case summary said the siblings signed a waiver Viets provided them.

“My clients signed a waiver of conflict of interest,” Viets said on Tuesday. “I thought I was abiding by the rules. I think the essence of what the court has found is that they said my waiver wasn’t adequate.”

The Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel said Viets’ waivers “did not constitute ‘informed consent’” under state rules.

The DePriests “had no legal training, little experience with the criminal justice system and little to no experience in hiring an attorney,” the office said. “The Waivers did not disclose that different levels of culpability or group plea offers create conflicts.”

The state also said Viets led the DePriests to believe there would be no conflict of interest “unless they decided they wanted to turn on each other.”

According to the case summary, Viets argued he should be reprimanded, not suspended.

Viets, in addition to a long history of advocating against marijuana prohibition, also hosts a radio show in Columbia on KOPN (89.5 FM) called “Sex, Drugs and Civil Liberties.”

He raised concerns earlier this year about a 2020 directive by the Supreme Court warning lawyers they could face professional discipline for participating in violations of federal law. Marijuana, though legal for medical use in Missouri, remains illegal under federal law.

Viets has also worked on the Legal Missouri 2022 initiative, one of several efforts to fully legalize cannabis in Missouri next year.

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