Spotlight On: Ayda Rezaian-Nojani

Please tell us a little about your background and how you came to work in criminal law.

As an immigrant growing up in Canada my life experiences were very different than those of my American peers. Attending law school in the US was not only a culture shock but exposed me to new experiences and a history that I knew little about. As I learned more about the history of inequitable treatment, my desire to have an impact grew. As a law student I realized the value of learning the law and my own privilege of having the opportunity to do so, understanding that many members of the community did not have the opportunity to attend law school. This pushed me to set a personal goal of never charging a client for information I had the privilege of learning. Criminal law was an area where I could achieve this goal all while working to remove barriers and create further equity. I’m proud to say that to this day, I have yet to charge a client.

You have worked as a Staff Attorney with the Cooley Innocence Project, and then as a Special Assistant Defender with SADO’s DNA Project. How does your past work with innocence issues inform the work you do now? Are there any cases in which this experience has impacted your current work?

I recently had a case that shows the disconnect between law and application. Now the charges themselves aren’t very interesting, two simple misdemeanors: driving while license suspended, contrary to MCL 257.904, and failing to stop at the scene of a property damage accident, contrary to MCL 257.618. The interesting fact was that the local police department had been purging digital evidence associated with pending cases. In this case the dash-cam and body cam had been purged due to an automated system.
Under MCL 780.316, which requires the preservation of bodycam and dashcam footage during a pending criminal case, a violation may be criminal as the willful destruction of audio and video recordings in contravention of an approved retention policy (here, a retention policy mandated by state law) is a criminal offense “punishable by imprisonment for not more than 2 years or a fine of not more than $1,000.00.” MCL 750.491(2). In this case the 17th Circuit Court ruled that the destruction was a violation of law, but that dismissal was not the proper remedy.

To me, this case was so interesting because the Legislature understood that transparency through video footage needed to be protected, hence, it enacted MCL 780.316. Where things fall apart is the execution of the law. To me, this comes down to accountability. If the penalty for this violation of law is “punishable by imprisonment for not more than 2 years or a fine of not more than $1,000.00,” MCL 750.491(2), and the agency that is alleged to be violating the law is protected by government immunity, the likelihood of prosecution is very minimal.

With my prior innocence experience and exposure to the contributing factors of wrongful conviction, the proper application of this law has a tremendous impact on the fairness of our system. It is as though the legislature is giving us the right tool; however, we haven’t figured out how to use it to the highest potential. I believe if we advocate in the right direction, we can balance the scales of justice a little bit at a time.

What do you like about being a public defender? Are there any downsides?

The downside to being a public defender is that we are working within a criminal system that has been unjust and has marginalized our community. As public defenders we are tasked with the responsibility of rebuilding trust within our community; we have the ability to make a large impact in our client’s lives, and, in turn, our community. That is what I like about being a public defender, especially one within a non-profit organization.
I also like the reassurance a client feels when I tell them that I do not work for the Court, County, or City, and that I work for them. I like the freedom to advocate for our clients and protect their rights with client-centered and holistic advocacy. I believe we are moving in the right direction as we work to rebuild the community’s trust in their right to representation.

As we continue to emerge from the pandemic, what do we need to prioritize in the criminal legal system?

The pandemic forced the legal profession outside of its comfort zone and challenged its creativity. In this process I think it showed us that we can, through small changes, make the legal system much more accessible. 
The emergence of zoom court was able to remove barriers such as employment, childcare, and transportation. By allowing people to attend virtual choir, while taking their 15-minute break at work, while their kids are being supervised by the neighbor for a short period of time, or from their home, when they struggle with reliable transportation.
This level of accessibility prevents loss of employment, housing instability, and being held in contempt for failure to appear ultimately causing further financial hardship. This accessibility is in line with rehabilitated goals of the system all while not delaying the court process.

Do you have any advice for other defense attorneys, particularly those that are just starting out?

My advice would be to make sure whatever path you take within this field, the work must feed your soul. There will be many highs, many lows, and many lessons learned. But if it feeds your soul, it will be your greatest adventure.

Kathy Swedlow
CDRC Manager and Editor