Baring Equality

The cases of a young defendant and a repeat offender attorney show power and privilege tip the scales

Before surrendering himself, Roy sought the advice of San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, whom he'd met at several criminal justice conferences. The resulting delay, combined with a scuffle Roy got into with a friend on a juvenile hall basketball court while awaiting a hearing, form the basis of charges that could earn Roy nearly a year more in jail, in a case first described in The Recorder, a legal newspaper.

Adachi sent a letter to the prisons department arguing that Roy was in compliance with state law allowing medicinal use of marijuana. Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation attorneys are now struggling to draft an official policy accommodating California's medical marijuana law.

In the meantime, the state has dropped the marijuana charge, and now seeks to reincarcerate Roy based solely on the delay in surrendering himself and the basketball court scuffle, which a guard had quelled using mace.

Roy should be capable of defending himself against these charges, said Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Tip Kindel.

"If you have the ability to go in and articulate that for yourself and understand what is going on, really there's no need for an attorney," Kindel said.

This is nonsense, of course. The multiple legal questions underlying Roy's case are complicated enough to have already occupied many attorney hours. Last year, California's prisons system settled a class action lawsuit with attorneys representing adult parolees, who said the state's previous policy of denying convicts the right to counsel at parole revocation hearings denied their constitutional right to due process. Now, the state provides parolees with court-appointed attorneys at such hearings free of charge.

But "the only members of the class were adult offenders," Kindel said. "It's not required [for juveniles], so why would that be something that would be done?"

That's easy: because railroading kids faced with jail time just because you can is the action of a bully state.

Legal filings chronicling the 41-year, on-and-off legal career of Sacramento general practitioner Frank Prantil suggest an unwavering faith among members of the State Bar bureaucracy in the potential for human redemption.

In 1979 a court determined that Prantil had improperly gotten his hands on $5,000 of a person's money, whom Prantil inaccurately claimed to be his client, according to the state court opinion confirming his disbarment.

The California State Bar Disciplinary Board suspended him, then immediately converted his suspension into a six-month "probationary" period during which he was allowed to continue practicing law.

The decision earned the following dissent from a panel judge: "The net effect of the board's order, upheld by the majority, is to impose no actual discipline whatever in this case."

Two years later Prantil was alleged to have aided some accused bank robbers he was representing in a check-kiting scheme. He was convicted of forgery, disbarred, and sentenced to two years in prison. In an unrelated case, he was convicted of perjury and of being an accessory after the fact in relation to an alleged cocaine conspiracy led by another client, according to court filings.

His perjury and accessory convictions were overturned based on the idea that the behavior of the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted him prejudiced Prantil's right to a fair trial.

The U.S. attorney in the case indeed seemed to go overboard, according to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion overturning his conviction. Something about Prantil's case indeed seemed to drive the assistant U.S. attorney overboard. A recurrent theme of the prosecutor's summation was to portray the defendant as "greedy," "corrupt," "dishonest," and "sleazy," the opinion said.

Five years after he was disbarred, Prantil applied to be reinstated based on the idea that he'd reformed himself. In 1994 he was readmitted to the Bar.

In a case now before the State Bar Court, Prantil is again alleged to have inadequately represented clients. Charges claim he let a deadline pass for an accused murderer's habeas corpus petition as he held out for more money from the client. When the suspect's mom complained to the State Bar, Prantil tried to cut a deal by which he would represent her for free if she withdrew her complaint, state disciplinary charges allege. This kind of deal is barred by law.

For his part, Prantil says any delays in legal filings were the result of time he spent drafting and preparing petitions, obtaining signatures for legal documents, and slow mail service.

"I have worked diligently in [sic] behalf of my client, but because I am a sole practicing attorney with a heavy load, I was not always able to draft a new petition to a higher court upon receipt of a denial from a lower court," Prantil wrote in response to the charges.

Prantil may well be right about this. The charges haven't yet been adjudicated.

However, neither Prantil, nor his potential clients, nor our legal system need have suffered this kind of pain. Had Prantil been forced to move into a different line of work back in the 1980s after he went to the slammer for forgery -- in other words, if California's rules regarding disbarment actually had teeth -- a lot of public expense, and private pain on the part of potentially harmed clients, might have been avoided.

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