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Disbarred lawyers or those pretending to be attorneys soon may face far tougher penalties for practicing without a license.State Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson is introducing a bill designating the current misdemeanor as a felony-with sentences of up to five years. Other punishment in the Savannah Republican’s proposal includes either a minimum two years in prison, a fine of up to $1,000 fine or both.The unauthorized practice of law now is punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail. Johnson says he believes district attorneys would be more willing to prosecute disbarred attorneys who still practice if there were far harsher sanctions.”By raising it to a felony, it will get the DA’s attention …. Why waste time indicting someone for a misdemeanor” which carries a lighter punishment? Johnson asks.Johnson, an architect, says he began drafting the bill at the urging of Chatham Superior Court Chief Judge Perry Brannen Jr., who criticized the lighter sentences.”What concerns me is the unauthorized practice of law is a misdemeanor and unauthorized practice of medicine is a felony,” Brannen says. “… Maybe in the past we’ve been a little soft on it by making it a misdemeanor.”Johnson has sent a first draft of the legislation to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Rene D. Kemp, D., Hinesville. Johnson says he will introduce the bill in January and that it likely will be considered by Kemp’s committee.”I think it’s something that’s needed,” Kemp says. “It needs to have some changes needed. We probably need to limit it to those attorneys who are disbarred and who know better… We’ve got to define what practicing law is.” Kemp says he plans to sign onto the bill.A notable recent case involves William E. Sumner, an Atlanta lawyer charged with theft by conversion and four misdemeanor charges of unauthorized practice of law. Fulton Magistrate Court Judge Ural Glanville found probable cause Thursday to issue warrants on those charges and set a preliminary hearing for September.Sumner represented people during his suspension, the Fulton Solicitor’s office has charged. Sumner was suspended June 18, 1998, for failing to answer a state bar notice of investigation concerning allegations that he mismanaged a client’s money. Sumner remained suspended until Nov. 19, 1998, only to be placed on interim suspension Jan. 28 for tardiness in answering another notice of investigation.Another high-profile case involves W. James Thompson, who allegedly posed as a lawyer for 13 years and operated out of a south DeKalb office. He was arrested on misdemeanor charges of unauthorized practice of law, theft by deception and fraudulent use of a notary seal. The arrest was the result of a Georgia Bureau of Investigation sting operation. Once out on bond, Thompson continued his practice, according to the DeKalb District Attorney’s office. He contacted one of his clients, who was an undercover GBI agent, to continue representing him in a divorce. In June, Thompson was charged in a 36-count indictment, including 13 counts of unauthorized practice of law.The State Bar of Georgia has handled 226 cases of unauthorized practice of law since last August, says William P. Smith III, the bar’s general counsel.Of the 226, 20 were successfully prosecuted and seven are pending, he says. Most of those cases involved impostors who never had licenses. Disbarred attorneys who illegally continue to practice are rare, he adds.Smith says many of the problems handled solely by the bar are less egregious violations such as: “Aunt Suzy drew up her own will and decides to help her neighbors. An investigator goes and says this is not the way it works. She says, ‘Oh my goodness’ and it stops.” The cases that are prosecuted involve “people out there who have it as their goal to take advantage of people,” he says. The bar is expected to take a position on the proposed legislation later this year after a draft is completed, Smith says.Though Johnson says that the crime’s penalties must be increased to ensure more frequent prosecutions, Smith says in the last three years, solicitors and district attorneys have become more willing to prosecute impostors.”Today, it’s really not an issue,” he adds.The wronged client often is an immigrant or someone from another “disadvantaged area of society” who is unwilling to come forward for fear of the legal system, Smith says. However, in “the age of consumerism,” he says clients have become bolder, providing prosecutors with witnesses where previously there were none.Because of the crime’s status as a misdemeanor, in counties where there is a solicitor’s office, DAs generally do not take the cases, he says.

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