It looked like a simple Fourth Amendment violation, with police hassling a young African-American man at a party and searching him without a warrant. It presented a great opportunity to fight for suppression of the apparent drug evidence seized from the young man, so Stanford Law’s Criminal Defense Clinic (CDC) took the case. But when Lincoln Mitchell and his clinic partner Claire McDonald, both JD ’19, encouraged their client to tell his story, they learned that things were not exactly as they appeared.

“We went into the case thinking that we would move to suppress the evidence. But our client explained that the ‘drugs’ were a prop for a music video—they weren’t drugs at all. And after a frustrating battle to push the district attorney’s office to finally produce the lab report, we discovered that the crime lab had confirmed our client’s innocence. Still—and this was the startling thing—the prosecution filed the charges after the crime lab issued its report,” says Mitchell.

It took persistence, as well as the time and dedication that many overworked public defenders don’t have, to right the wrong.

“We tried repeatedly to reach the DA,” Mitchell explains, “but he wouldn’t return our calls. Finally, Suzanne [Luban, clinical supervising attorney and lecturer in law] had to hunt him down and, after a long, drawn-out process, he dismissed the case.”

The value of doggedly investigating each client’s predicament and performing top-notch legal work is at the core of what Luban and Ron Tyler, professor of law and CDC director, are attempting to instill.

Ron Tyler, Criminal Defense Clinic director, and Suzanne Luban, Clinical Supervising Attorney (photo by Alyssa Ashdown)

“We are teaching the ‘gold standard’—the best practices for criminal defense,” says Tyler. “And at the heart of that is client-centered representation. This means taking the time to connect with clients, to build rapport and trust, and to listen to what they have to say. Clients have important information—they were there. Being empathetic and available for their input pushes forward the goal of effective representation.”

Indeed, for Mitchell, now a public defender in Philadelphia, client-centered representation was his biggest takeaway from the CDC.

“Now that I have multiple clients, that client-centered experience acts as a check when I’m feeling frustrated or overwhelmed,” he says. “I know what the best practices are. So, when I come to a crossroads where I can either listen to the client or take a shortcut, clinic reminds me to listen.”

To ensure that students get the best clinical experience, Tyler and Luban spend the months prior to each quarter carefully selecting misdemeanor cases in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, ones that have “live” issues. “We generally look for a police-citizen encounter based on a warrantless search or a faulty warrant,” says Tyler. “Those cases will get the students in court to cross-examine police officers and at times to conduct direct examination of defense witnesses.”

In the fall and spring quarters, four teams of two students are assigned cases, usually including a suppression motion or a speedy trial motion. Luban explains, “The most important lessons of criminal trial practice can be learned in an evidentiary hearing; almost everything is included except jury selection.”

Students spend the first two weeks of clinic in workshops centered on acquiring substantive legal knowledge and learning practical skills. “They have their cases on the first day and we immediately begin applying the workshop lessons to the issues faced by their clients,” says Tyler. “Students begin trying out newly learned advocacy skills in practicums almost daily, learning by doing, one of the primary tenets of clinical education,” Luban explains. This was key for Serena Saffarini.

“Ron and Suzanne hired actors to play our clients. We outlined our questions for the interview and then videotaped it,” says Saffarini, JD ’20. “The actors were really great, and I felt so much more prepared for my real clients when I actually met them.”

Akin to client-centered representation is the clinic’s holistic approach, which challenges students to assess how they can help the whole person. 

“We teach our students that the client’s biggest problem is often not the criminal case. For example, some clients face dire immigration consequences. So we bring in an immigration lawyer to consult with the team and the client,” says Luban. In addition, the Mills Legal Clinic now has a pilot program with a licensed clinical social worker, Kathy Ho, who supervises master’s of social work students from programs around the country. The MSW students meet with CDC students and their clients and explore solutions to a wide array of social concerns, such as challenging a veteran’s dishonorable discharge or helping a homeless client find housing.

But sometimes those issues can’t be solved. Mallorie Urban, JD ’21, encountered such a situation in a complicated case where her client was charged with heroin found inside a friend’s apartment while the client was visiting. The Fourth Amendment issues were numerous, including whether the officers’ warrantless entry into the apartment was unconstitutional. But beyond the complexity of the legal questions, the case presented another challenge: The client was a heroin addict.

“Employing the holistic approach to representing our client meant asking an underlying question: ‘What is he doing about his addiction?’ ” says Urban. “We tried to get him help, but we had to prioritize focusing on the legal issues so that we could provide the best representation.”

And ultimately that’s exactly the lesson that the clinic would like its students to learn.

“Whether our students become public defenders, prosecutors, public interest advocates, or corporate lawyers, we are teaching them what effective, client-centered representation looks like and why it makes for better lawyering,” Tyler says. “We debrief with them after each major event and ask them how it deepens their understanding of the different concepts once they’ve had some practical experience. Then they can take what we are teaching them out into the world.”

Since the spring 2020 clinic was canceled due to COVID-19, Tyler and Luban have been teaching a newly developed online course on search and seizure issues for criminal lawyers. Luban explains, “By combining a deep dive into key constitutional decisions and police video from a wealth of clinic cases where officers violated our clients’ rights, we are engaging in an exciting exploration of how legal principles apply to real-world encounters.” Also, Tyler and Luban are busy planning the vibrant return of the clinic for the 2020-2021 academic year, adapted to COVID-19 social distancing requirements.  SL