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BIG FIRE GENERATES GIANT BILL FOR HAPLESS MECHANIC On a hunting trip to the Mendocino National Forest in 2003, Jason Hoskey wound up lost. To stay warm, he lit a fire on a sandbar in the middle of a stream. But winds carried burning embers across the stream into the woods. The resulting blaze scorched more than 6,000 acres. In response, the government hit Hoskey, a 26-year-old mechanic from Willows, with a bill for the cost of putting out the fire and replanting devastated forest lands. A bill for $33 million. Hoskey pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of leaving a fire unattended while he slept in the woods. But his attorney, Adam Ryan of Red Bluff, argued there was no way Hoskey could pay the full amount that the government sought. Ryan said he managed to bargain the original tab down to $18 million, but that was still far beyond his client’s means. Last week, U.S. Magistrate Judge Craig Kellison ordered Hoskey to pay restitution at a much reduced rate: $200 a month for five years. The judge also barred Hoskey from the Mendocino National Forest for five years. Ryan criticized federal prosecutors for making “an example” of his client, who Ryan said earns $1,200 a month and lives with his parents. “It might look good for the U.S. attorney’s statistics,” the lawyer said, “but it was simply a waste of government resources to prosecute something like that.” Nevertheless, the feds say Hoskey’s troubles may not be over just yet. Samantha Spangler, the supervising assistant U.S. attorney in charge of the unit that prosecuted Hoskey, said her office may seek additional civil penalties once Hoskey’s five-year probationary period is up. “Something could happen to put him in a position to pay the full restitution,” she said. “This doesn’t mean he’s off the hook for the balance.” Given Hoskey’s job and income level, he’s not likely to be in a better position to pay off the tab five years from now unless “he hits the lottery,” Ryan said. — Jill Duman NO RESPONSE = PRICEY PROBLEM A California appeal court didn’t bite when Home Depot tried to wriggle out of a nearly $1 million default judgment by accusing an identity theft victim of pulling a fast one. Instead, the Fourth District Court of Appeal told the giant do-it-yourself retailer that it should have done something itself to avoid the judgment in the first place. On top of affirming the lower court’s judgment, the Fourth District called Home Depot’s accusations out of line. In a published Feb. 17 opinion, the court slapped the company with sanctions for making “unsupported attacks on the integrity of [the] plaintiff and his lawyer.” It all started when Alan Sporn sued an unknown person for stealing his identity to apply for credit at Home Depot, the appellate opinion says. Sporn named Home Depot as a defendant in the Orange County Superior Court suit, claiming that after the identity theft, the company checked on him so frequently with a credit reporting agency that his credit was damaged. Home Depot didn’t chime in on the litigation until months after a superior court judge had given Sporn a $930,000 default judgment. Trying to get the judgment set aside, the company blamed its tardiness on Sporn’s lawyer, Kelly Johnson of Newport Beach, claiming he hadn’t let the company know about the hearing at which the judge decided the judgment. But the appellate justices declared themselves “less than impressed” by Home Depot’s accusations that Sporn had been “laying [sic] in the weeds” and hiding information to stop the firm from defending itself. “The record does not support these characterizations,” wrote Justice William Rylaarsdam, with Justices William Bedsworth and Raymond Ikola concurring. The court noted that Sporn’s counsel properly notified Home Depot of the suit, and said Johnson “extended a commendable courtesy” when he wrote Home Depot a letter offering the company two extra weeks to respond to the suit before he’d seek a default judgment on Sporn’s behalf. Besides, Home Depot never offered the court a good excuse for ignoring the complaint in the first place, Rylaarsdam wrote. “There is no statement that the papers were lost, stolen, forwarded to the wrong person or eaten by the dog.” — Pam Smith DANGEROUS LIAISON Disbarred Oakland lawyer Malik Muhammad didn’t handle rejection quietly. After a tumultuous one-year relationship ended in 2002, the former police officer, assistant district attorney and criminal defense lawyer allegedly went on a two-week rampage, repeatedly threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend. Alameda County jurors eventually convicted Muhammad, who represented himself, of stalking and issuing criminal threats. He was given probation, which San Francisco’s First District Court of Appeal affirmed last week. The court’s unpublished opinion states that Muhammad, a Hastings College of the Law graduate who got his Bar license in 1977, began dating a woman identified only as I.H. in September 2001. A year later, the stormy relationship ended — to Muhammad’s displeasure. According to the ruling, I.H., a vice president of a branch bank, got phone calls for two weeks afterward with messages calling her a bitch, questioning her sexual orientation and threatening death. Calls came up to 50 times a day, and at one point I.H.’s condominium was vandalized. On Oct. 6, 2002, the woman received five separate phone messages within 12 minutes threatening death if she didn’t apologize for calling Muhammad a “mother fucker” and a “son of a bitch” during a prior argument. “I swear that on my dead parents’ graves, I’m going to blow your brains out if you don’t apologize,” one of the messages said. There were also threats of “hot bullets going in your ass.” Muhammad was arrested and jailed for 42 days, but within a week of his release, the court said, I.H. got a message saying: “You’re a dead bitch, dead bitch. Repeat: You’re a dead bitch, dead bitch.” On appeal, the court said there “can be no question” that the phone messages constituted criminal threats. “We note that appellant was not simply making phone calls to I.H. after their breakup,” Justice Laurence Kay wrote. “He was also appearing and acting erratically at her workplace, and thus underscoring the potential for a physical confrontation.” Justices Patricia Sepulveda and Maria Rivera concurred. State Bar records show that Muhammad has an extensive disciplinary record, including several temporary suspensions for not paying Bar dues. He was disbarred on Sept. 30, 2001, for, among other things, charging illegal fees and failing to perform competently. The State Bar site also indicates that Muhammad was previously suspended and served jail time for refusing to appear in court as a protest against the jury verdict clearing Los Angeles police officers in the Rodney King beating. He also failed to comply with State Bar-imposed discipline. “Muhammad,” the site states, “intentionally failed to comply with the disciplinary orders as a protest against what he perceives as a racist system.” — Mike McKee

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