Missouri High Court to Decide If Vernon Co Attorney/Candidate's Changing Story Broke Rules

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.(Missourinet)--The Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in Jefferson City on whether an attorney should be disciplined over his own felony plea.

The lawyer in question, a nervous Dustin Dunfield of Nevada, represented himself before the high bench.

In 1996, Dustin Dunfield pleaded guilty to statutory rape and was given a two year-year suspended sentence and placed on probation for two years.

In 2007, he admitted on his application for law school in Arkansas that he’d pleaded guilty to the rape charges.  And in 2010, he admitted to the same plea twice when he applied to become a lawyer in both Arkansas and Missouri.

But in 2014, he swore on a candidate declaration form that he had not been convicted, found guilty or pleaded guilty to a felony under state law.  At the time, Dunfield was running for county prosecutor in southwest Missouri’s Vernon County.

State law bars anybody who has been convicted, found guilty, or pleaded guilty to a felony from qualifying for public office.

Incumbent Prosecutor Lynn Ewing, who was also running for reelection, challenged Dunfield’s candidacy in court.  Meanwhile, Dunfield moved to have his guilty plea set aside, and for his name to be removed from the state sex offender registry.

Both cases ended up in the same place on the same day, before Newton County Circuit Judge Timothy Perigo, who heard arguments in nearby Cedar County.

Judge Perigo found that “contestee” Dunfield had been found guilty of statutory rape and declared him ineligible to be a prosecuting attorney.  Dunfield’s name was ordered to be removed from the ballot.

The judge also denied Dunfield’s motion to have his guilty plea set aside as well as his petition to have his name removed from the sexual offender registry.  Judge Perigo “advised” Dunfield to register as a sex offender within three days.

After the court determined Dunfield ineligible for office, Prosecutor Ewing filed to have him punished before the state Chief Disciplinary Counsel.

A regional three-person Disciplinary Hearing Panel determined Dunfield had broken rules by stating he had not been found guilty in his candidate declaration form.  The panel recommended that Dunfield be suspended from practicing law for two years, but with the suspension stayed, and replaced with two-year period of probation.

The Chief Disciplinary Counsel disagreed and is asking the Supreme Court to suspend Dunfield indefinitely, with without an option to apply for reinstatement for one year.

Before the high court, Disciplinary Counsel Attorney Kevin Rapp claimed it was an “honesty case” and said Dunfield had changed his position multiple time throughout the legal process surrounding him.

Dunfield represented himself before the bench.  He admitted he was wrong to have said he hadn’t pleaded guilty when filing for office, but contended he did so under good faith because he’d been advised that he wouldn’t be breaking any rules.

The Supreme Court, as is their custom, will release a decision in the case at a later date.

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