Tuesday, 18 June 2024

State Bar: Case closed on complaint about district attorney's open letter

LAKE COUNTY – The State Bar of California has concluded that it will take no action on a complaint against the county's district attorney regarding an open letter to the community he released prior to a trial last summer.

District Attorney Jon Hopkins received a letter from State Bar Deputy Trial Counsel Robert Henderson dated May 13 that notified him of the decision.

“The State Bar has completed the investigation of the allegations of professional misconduct reported by Victor Haltom and determined that this matter does not warrant further action,” Henderson's letter stated. “Therefore, the matter is closed.”

Haltom is the Sacramento attorney who represented Carmichael resident Bismarck Dinius in a felony boating under the influence trial last summer.

Dinius was prosecuted in connection with a fatal April 2006 boat crash in which he was sitting at the tiller of a sailboat that was hit from behind on a dark night by an off-duty sheriff's chief deputy, Russell Perdock.

Both of Hopkins' opponents in this year's district attorney race, defense attorneys Don Anderson and Doug Rhoades, said they felt that releasing the open letter was not a good idea.

“It may not have been a technical ethical violation, it may not have violated the Rules of Professional Conduct, but I thought it was improper,” Rhoades said Monday.

Anderson said he didn't think it was morally right.

On July 17, 2009, about a week and a half before the trial began, Hopkins released an open letter in which he announced he would drop a manslaughter charge against Dinius.

At that time Hopkins also addressed several key questions in the case, including whether or not the sailboat's running lights were on, when blood alcohol tests were done, the motorboat's speed, the charges and conflict of interest allegations. See the letter here: http://lakeconews.com/content/view/9563/919/.

Hopkins' letter angered Haltom and some community members because it made statements about “drunken sailors” in reference to Dinius.

“I thought the 'open letter' plainly violated governing ethical standards,” Haltom said Monday. “That is why I submitted the complaint to the State Bar. I've been practicing for nearly two decades now. This is the only complaint I have submitted to the State Bar.”

Dinius would go on to be acquitted of the felony boating under the influence causing great bodily injury charge and a misdemeanor count of boating under the influence, with the jury deadlocking on a misdemeanor count of boating with a blood alcohol level of more than 0.08, which later was dismissed, as Lake County News has reported.

Hopkins said the State Bar notified him last year that a complaint had been made against him regarding the letter by an individual named Brent Vordross.

In response, Hopkins wrote a letter explaining his decision to release the statement to the community, and pointed out that Judge J. Michael Byrne had found no ethical violation because of the letter.

Shortly before the Dinius trial started last summer, Haltom filed a motion accusing Hopkins of prosecutorial misconduct because of the letter, which Byrne heard on July 21, 2009. During the arguments on the motion, Haltom called the letter “a remarkable, unprecedented event.”

Byrne held that there was a constitutional right guaranteeing press access to court matters, but told Hopkins, “I don't think it was a good idea to issue a press release at this time.” However, Byrne added that he was satisfied that Hopkins wasn't guilty of misconduct, as Lake County News has reported.

Hopkins said the open letter was meant to combat a “barrage of defense publicity,” which he said he has a right to do under the California Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 5-120.

Section C of that rule, Hopkins said, “allows me to make a statement that I would reasonably believe is required to protect my client – the people of Lake County – from substantial undue prejudicial effect of recent publicity not initiated by me.”

He added, “That's built into the Rules of Professional Conduct specifically.”

Hopkins received a letter dated Nov. 17, 2009, from Manya B. Lewis, a complaint analyst with the State Bar's Los Angeles office, who notified him that the complaint had been reviewed and evaluated.

“The determination has been made that there are insufficient grounds for disciplinary action,” Lewis wrote. “Therefore, we are closing our files at this time.”

Then, in April, Hopkins received a letter from the San Francisco State Bar office, notifying him of the second complaint, this one by Haltom, in which it was alleged Hopkins was attempting to use the open letter to taint the jury pool.

Hopkins said he responded with a three-page letter. “In this one they got an investigator and an attorney involved in reviewing it,” he said.

There was no danger of tampering the jury pool, Hopkins asserted, noting that the jury already had been admonished not to read media reports about the case. Those who did violate that admonishment during the jury selection process were excused for cause.

While Haltom was critical of Hopkins for the letter, Hopkins in turn was critical of many of Haltom's media disclosures.

In one case, on the first morning of jury selection last summer, Hopkins said he, Haltom and Byrne were still finalizing the jury questionnaire. Before they were finished that morning, he said Haltom had released the questionnaire to a Bay Area TV station, which posted it on its Web site.

Haltom told Lake County News that he also received a letter from the State Bar notifying him of its decision.

That letter, which he said was written by State Bar counsel, stated, “After review, I have concluded that there is insufficient proof to obtain a culpability finding. Therefore, I am closing this matter for lack of sufficient proof. Clearly the State Bar is concerned about the issue of pre-trial publicity in this matter. Unfortunately, it does not appear as if the matter could be proved by clear and convincing evidence.”

Haltom said he has no experience regarding State Bar prosecutions, so he doesn't know the standards the State Bar applies in such cases.

“So, I cannot intelligently comment on what exactly the State Bar would need to prove that Mr. Hopkins violated ethical standards by writing and publishing his 'open letter' during jury selection in the Dinius trial,” Haltom said.

In response to questions about whether or not either of them had ever been the subject of a complaint to the State Bar, Anderson said he once received a letter from the State Bar about an insufficient funds issue regarding a check being deposited into his trust account in a personal injury case. But no formal complaint resulted.

Rhoades said a complaint was filed against him previously, but nothing came of it.

He said complaints are made all the time, but very few are sustained.

“I think almost any attorney who has been in business for more than 10 years has had at least one,” he said.

Hopkins said he had gone 37 years as an attorney before the first complaint was lodged against him last year.

None of the three men have any public record of discipline or administrative actions against them, according to the State Bar.

Anderson, attended San Jose State University, where he received his undergraduate degree, and attended Empire College School of Law in Santa Rosa. He was admitted to the State Bar on Dec. 11, 1989.

Hopkins was admitted to the State Bar on June 2, 1972. He received an undergraduate degree from the University of Akron in Akron, Ohio, and studied law at California Western School of Law in San Diego.

Rhoades received his undergraduate degree from California State University, Sonoma in Rohnert Park and, like Anderson, studied for his law degree at Empire College School of Law in Santa Rosa. Rhoades was admitted to the bar on Dec. 6, 1996.

E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Follow Lake County News on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LakeCoNews and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Lake-County-News/143156775604?ref=mf .

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