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Convicted Sex Offender Now a Licensed Attorney in Washington State

A divided Washington Supreme Court beat back prejudice with a November 2022 decision admitting a convicted sex offender to the state bar. Zachary LeRoy Stevens was charged as a teenager with four counts of sexual exploitation of a minor for sending child pornography to a detective posing as a 14-year-old online. He pleaded guilty to reduced charges of voyeurism in 2012, serving less than a year in jail and on home detention. He was also required to register as a sex offender.

Stevens had previously been convicted of drug offenses and violated his probation with an impaired driving charge. But he subsequently turned his life around, graduating from Arizona State University’s law school in 2018.

Attorneys must pass a character and fitness review before being licensed, however, and the Arizona state bar rejected his application. Planning to move to Washington, Stevens applied to that state’s bar association, which also recommended denial of his request. On November 3, 2022, however, Washington’s Supreme Court narrowly rejected that recommendation.

In a 5-4 decision, the Court noted that Stevens had “abstained from engaging in any unlawful conduct since 2013,” and “like all of us ... is more than the worst moments of his life.” The Court noted that he had not only graduated from college and law school but also married and developed a supportive network. Additionally, he had disclosed his sex offender status to classmates and employers, and he had shown remorse.

When evaluating the eligibility factors, the Court said, the standard for admitting Stevens to the bar was whether he had proved by clear and convincing evidence that he was “currently of ‘good moral character’” – i.e., of good moral character presently at age 33, not when he committed his sex offenses at age 19.

The Court also considered but gave little weight to the Arizona bar’s rejection of Stevens’ application, saying it was apparent he was not “forum shopping.” Moreover Arizona, unlike Washington, had a presumption that an applicant convicted of any felony be denied admission. In Washington there is “no categorical exclusion of an applicant who has a criminal or substance abuse history,” the Court noted, concluding that Stevens’ prior criminal conduct, “though extremely serious, is sufficiently mitigated that it does not prevent his admission to the bar.”

Four dissenting judges, led by Justice Barbara Madsen, said Stevens failed to meet his burden of demonstrating current good moral character and fitness to practice law. Observing that at the time of his application he still had to register as a sex offender, she criticized the majority for “creat[ing] a substantially lower standard compared to other states.”

A number of organizations filed amicus briefs in support of Stevens, however, including the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Northwest Justice Project, Washington Defender Association, and Columbia Legal Services. Also supporting his application were a state lawmaker admitted to practice law despite her past criminal record, Tarra Simmons (D-Kitsap), as well as former jailhouse lawyer – now attorney and law school professor – Shon Hopwood. See: In re Bar in re Stevens, 200 Wash. 2d 531 (2022).  

Additional source: Reuters

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