Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, June 11, 2002


Page 3


Bill to Increase Penalties for Unlicensed Practice of Law Clears Senate




State senators yesterday passed a bill increasing misdemeanor penalties for people who practice law or give legal advice without a license or federal court approval.

Senate Bill 1459, sponsored by Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, makes a misdemeanor conviction of practicing law without a license punishable by up to a year in county jail and a $1,000 fine, or both.

It also creates a minimum punishment of 90 days in jail for subsequent convictions. A sentencing court would have to explain any variation from these standards on record.

The bill passed in the Senate by a vote of 27-6 and, most likely, moves on to the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, John Hooper, a spokesman for Senator Romero, said.

Under existing law a disbarred or suspended lawyer who practiced law could be charged with a felony. A non-lawyer could only be charged with a misdemeanor.

When introduced, SB 1459 attempted to address the discrepancy between the two charges by creating a  “wobbler,” a crime that could be charges as a felony or misdemeanor, for non-lawyers convicted more than once of claiming to be licensed to practice law.

As amended, SB 1459 would no longer create a felony charge, but increases the maximum sentence for the misdemeanor from six months to one year and creates a minimum sentence of 90 days in county jail for repeat violators of the law.

Romero’s office said the bill would allow harsher penalties against individuals who targeted minority communities and people with a limited knowledge of the English language and American laws posing as immigration consultants or legal advisors.

“Right now [the penalty is] a slap on the wrist,” Hooper said. “A lot of these guys [who practice law without a license] calculate the cost of the misdemeanor in the cost of overhead. It’s a part of doing business.”

State Bar President Karen Nobumoto, who encouraged and helped create the bill based on her experience at the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office, said the new language, which she helped draft, provides a huge increase in penalty compared with previous penalties.

“I’m grateful for [this bill passing],” Nobumoto said. “We can work with this.”

Supporters of the bill said they moved away from a felony because of concern about Three-Strikes Law implications. Hooper commented that the bill would have died in committee without easing the penalty against non-lawyers.

Under the Three-Strikes Law, anyone convicted of two felonies, with at least one specified serious or violent felony, can receive a 25-year-to-life sentence on a third felony conviction - a “third strike.”

Nobumoto noted that there was an apparent reluctance by the Senate Public Safety Committee to pass non-violent felonies.

“Recognizing this, we drafted a compromise that allowed us to have stricter penalties without going up against the reluctance of the Public Safety Committee,” Nobumoto said.

  Adam Mendelsohn, a spokesman for Public Safety Committee Chairman Sen. Bruce McPherson, R-Santa Cruz, said that McPherson was supportive of the bill, whether it created a felony or misdemeanor, but understood that the makeup of the Senate-nearly two-thirds Democrat-may have “hesitated” to make a bill creating a felony law.

The bill also closes a loophole that allowed disbarred or suspended lawyers to continue acting as a lawyer, if they did not imply that they were licensed. It emphasizes that practicing law without a license includes the attempt to practice law or offer legal advice even without claiming to be a licensed lawyer.

The topic made headlines recently, when a former attorney Cristeta Paguirigan took on tasks such as preparing motions, analyzing cases, and dispensing legal advice for the city of South Gate. Because Paguirigan had been an attorney, disbarred in 1997 for forging a client’s signature on court documents, she is eligible for a felony conviction and faces a possible three years in prison.


Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company