Criminal Defense for Attorneys in California
As an attorney licensed in the State of California, your job is to uphold the law, and you are held to a high standard of ethical and professional standards.
You must defend others charged with a crime if you're a criminal defense attorney. But what happens when you are the one accused of a crime? What happens when an attorney needs an attorney?
Because attorneys are entrusted with upholding the law, it's not uncommon for lawyers to find themselves accused of violating a law. The situation can be complicated if you're a lawyer in California accused of a crime. Let's talk about the particular issues and challenges you may be dealing with.
There are challenges involved with defending an attorney. While lawyers are subject to the same laws and possible penalties as any other citizen, the unique circumstance is that attorneys may have difficulty claiming ignorance of the law when seeking leniency from the court.
Judges and juries may hold an attorney to a higher standard of accountability than the average citizen. While this may or may not make conviction more likely, it does make it more likely to have sentences imposed at or near the maximum.
For that reason, while attorneys are qualified to represent themselves, hiring another attorney to represent their interests may be advisable—especially one with specific experience in attorney defense.
Dangers of Disbarment and Attorney Discipline
If you're an attorney charged with a crime in California, not only are you faced with the threat of criminal penalties, but if you are convicted, you may also be subject to professional discipline and sanctions by the California State Bar, possibly leading to suspension or disbarment.
In fact, California is the only state in the Union with a State Bar Court—a special court dedicated to court cases involving attorney discipline. Thus, a criminal conviction might not only make you subject to fines and jail time; but also cost you your career.
The critical thing to consider with the State Bar Court is that it does not decide based on the same standards as a criminal court. So, for example, when you're charged with a crime, you can only be convicted if the jury is convinced "beyond a reasonable doubt" that you committed a crime.
In attorney discipline deliberations, the Bar uses the "clear and convincing evidence" standard to determine your culpability, which requires a lesser burden of proof.
Thus, if you're convicted of a crime, it's even more likely that the Bar Court will find that you committed misconduct—and if the crime meets their criteria, you will face formal reproval, suspension, or full removal from the State Bar.
What Crimes Can Cause an Attorney to be Disbarred?
Under California law, a licensed attorney can be removed from the Bar upon being convicted of a "crime of moral turpitude" or for "other conduct warranting discipline."
- Crimes involving moral turpitude: Under Business & Professions Code 6101(a), attorneys can be specifically disbarred or suspended over a misdemeanor or felony crime "involving moral turpitude." Generally speaking, a crime of moral turpitude involves dishonesty or a morally reprehensible act;
- Other conduct warranting discipline: The State Bar Court reserves the right to suspend or disbar an attorney for "other conduct warranting discipline." This is a generalization that is determined on a case-by-case basis, but the benchmark for determining whether a specific crime "warrants discipline" is whether it does damage to the profession or the public—meaning, whether the attorney's actions impact the public trust or their ability to practice law effectively.
Examples of crimes involving moral turpitude include:
- Murder under Penal Code 187 PC;
- Perjury under Penal Code 118 PC;
- Mail fraud under 18 U.S.C. 1341;
- False impersonation under Penal Code 529 PC;
- Grand theft under Penal Code 487 PC, particularly regarding client funds or funds of the law firm;
- Soliciting clients to commit a crime under Penal Code 653f PC;
- Lewd acts with a minor under Penal Code 288 PC.
Examples of crimes that might constitute "other conduct warranting discipline" include:
- Domestic violence;
- DUI defined under Vehicle Code 23152 VC;
- Carrying a concealed weapon under Penal Code 25400 PC;
- Various tax-related offenses
Can I be disciplined by the State Bar just for being charged with a crime?
No. The State Bar Court only considers disciplinary action if you are convicted of a crime, meaning a guilty verdict or a plea of guilty or nolo contendere. If the charges are dropped or you are acquitted, you will not face disciplinary action from the State Bar.
Domestic Violence Offenses
Domestic violence is the most common type of prosecution in California, including attorneys who are now defendants.
The criminal court process after a domestic violence arrest is often very stressful and can potentially divide a family.
In some domestic violence cases where the victim suffered a serious injury, prosecutors could file felony charges under California penal Code 273.5 corporal injury to a spouse. It's described as inflicting physical injury on a cohabitant, spouse, parent, or someone the defendant has dated.
However, most domestic violence cases are filed as misdemeanors under California Penal Code 243(e)(1) domestic battery. Penal Code 422 criminal threats are described as threatening someone with serious harm. It's a wobbler that can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
Penal Code 646.9 stalking is described as repeatedly harassing or threatening somebody to a point where they fear their safety or immediate family's safety. Stalking is also a wobbler. Other types of common domestic violence-related charges include:
- Penal Code 368 PC elder abuse;
- Penal Code 591 PC damaging a telephone line;
- Penal Code 136.1 PC witness intimidation;
- Penal Code 273d PC child abuse;
- Penal Code 601 PC aggravated trespassing;
- Penal Code 647(j)(4) PC revenge porn.
The crime of violating a restraining or protective order is defined under California Penal Code 273.6 PC. This domestic violence-related crime occurs when someone intentionally and knowingly breaks a court-issued order.
The court order could come in the form of a protective order issued in a criminal court or a civil restraining order, commonly known as a “TRO.” For example, a domestic violence restraining order protects someone against abuse from their intimate partner.
You can contact our law firm for an initial case consultation via phone or the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, CA.