Tuesday, April 30, 2002
Senate Panel to Weigh Harsher Penalty for Unlicensed Practice of Law
By NAZANIN AGANGE, Staff Writer
The state Senate’s Judiciary Committee is scheduled today to consider a bill that would allow the unlicensed practice of law to be prosecuted as a felony on the second offense.
Senate Bill 1459, authored by Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, would give prosecutors the option to file felony or misdemeanor charges after the first conviction. The law would apply only to individuals who have never been admitted to the bar in California.
Current laws give prosecutors the option of charging former California attorneys with a felony or misdemeanor. The penalty for non-lawyers or out-of-state attorneys practicing without authorization is only a misdemeanor.
State Bar Chief Legislative Analyst Larry Doyle said the current law does not deter those who repeatedly practice law without a license because they will only face misdemeanor charges.
He said the bill seeks to create a harsher penalty against those who practice law or represent themselves as lawyers in order to knowingly defraud the public.
“The current penalties are not harsh enough to be a deterrent,” Doyle said. “The most effective way to address the issue was ... to go after those who purposely, repeatedly defraud citizens in California.”
The State Bar sponsors the bill.
Romero spokesman John Hooper said the bill originally would have permitted a felony filing only if intent to mislead was proven. It was rewritten after the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office said that was too heavy a burden of proof, Hooper said.
Doyle said the bill was amended because the best way to go after violators was not to rewrite all the “elements of the unauthorized practice of law and set them up as potential felonies,” but to make a person’s first conviction a misdemeanor and make subsequent arrests eligible for felony charges.
“Felony [charges] should be reserved for those people who are actively engaged in defrauding the California people,” Doyle commented.
According to Romero’s office, the bill has broad support.
In a letter dated April 24, the Los Angeles County Bar Association expressed its support for the bill, stating that “the results of the practices your bill addresses often have a rippling effect.”
According to the letter, often the victims of those who practice law without a license are “in the immigrant communities [who] are unaware of what recourse they have” after they have paid for non-existent services.
A previous Romero bill, SB 1194, addressed the damages and relief victims of such fraud are entitled to. It passed in March 2001.
Hooper and Doyle both said they were optimistic that SB 1459 would pass.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company