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Los Angeles County Pays $32,500 To Settle Public Defender's Legal Malpractice

by John E. Dannenberg

On November 8, 2004, the Los Angeles County, California Claims Board granted authority of $32,500 to settle a claim by a prisoner for legal malpractice on the part of the Public Defender, wherein the prisoner had been incompetently advised to accept a felony plea-bargain for what amounted only to a misdemeanor offense.

Benjamin Jaramillo was arrested in possession of marijuana on October 15, 2001, for which a felony drug charge was filed against him. Upon advice from his appointed deputy public defender, Jaramillo pled guilty to the felony. His four year state prison sentence was suspended in exchange for five years probation plus one year county jail. After release from his jail term in July, 2002, he violated his probation terms and was sent to state prison for four years.

On direct appeal of that sentence, the California Court of Appeals ruled that based upon the facts of his case, the original charge should have only been a misdemeanor punishable by a $100 fine. Jaramillo was released from prison on August 23, 2003; he had been incarcerated a total of 440 days.

In evaluating the County's exposure on Jaramillo's subsequent claim, county counsel advised the Claims Board of potential damages at trial of $175,000, consisting of $150,000 pain and suffering plus $25,000 loss of earnings. Against this exposure, counsel asked the Board of Supervisors for settlement authority of $32,500, inclusive of Jaramillo's damages, costs and attorney fees. County counsel noted that its own costs of defense of the pending trial were $7,320 in attorney fees plus $1,452 in costs, so far.

County counsel summarized the liability to the Board: Benjamin Jaramillo depended on the legal counsel of the Public Defender's Office before he entered his plea to the felony. A jury could conclude that the Deputy Public Defender should have known that the crime was a misdemeanor and brought that to the Court's attention." PLN readers experiencing dump-truck" legal representation from a public defender should learn from this report that as an attorney, the public defender is held to the same standards of professional responsibility as a private attorney. See: Jaramillo v. County of Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Superior Court Case No. BC 307738.

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Related legal case

Jaramillo v. County of Los Angeles