Former Prosecutor. Powerful Defense Advocate. Certified in the Area of Criminal Law

My Story

I knew I wanted to be a lawyer when I was still in grade school. All of my teachers told me that was what I should do. Looking back I think that was their nice way of saying that I was a big mouth, and that I should probably try to get paid for it someday.

In High School I joined the Speech and Debate Team and I quickly got over any natural fear of speaking in front of people that I may have been born with. I truly enjoyed speech and debate. I liked the verbal sparring, and the communication of ideas and emotions. I liked that as a high school kid that adults would seriously consider the things I said, even if only to weigh them against the things that some other high school kid was saying.

In college I joined Student Government, first at Valley Junior College, where I completed my first years of post-high school education, and then at UCLA. At Valley College I started out as the representative for the Astronomy Club (Nerd Pride) to the Inter-Club Council. I then acted as Parliamentarian for the Student Union for a time, before making an unsuccessful run to be President of the Student Union. I lost by a few dozen votes out of several hundred. Things happen. After I transferred to UCLA I spent a year as a representative for my building to the Dormitory Student Union. It was a pretty good gig. We put on events and took up complaints from other residents. Good stuff.

Eventually I took my Bachelor's Degree in Political Science from UCLA. After that I took the LSAT (Law School Aptitude Test) and went on to Loyola Law School. It was always my intention to one day be a criminal defense attorney. I had been captured by the images, as a child, of men in suits standing up for good guys, who had been accused of being bad guys. Four years of studying American Government, with all of its accomplishments... and all of its failures, made me even more aware of the need our society had for good criminal defense lawyers, and I hoped I could become one.

Law School itself very much supported my intention of going into Criminal Law as my specialty. To put it bluntly, many things about the law are boring. The badly written statutes, the badly written appellate decisions, and the endless memorization of arcane rules of court are really only livened up at all when they are being invoked to settle an interesting dispute. A good story makes the law interesting, and the stories in my several courses on introductory and advanced criminal law certainly were much than I ever got in my Property or Contracts classes.

While I always figured that I would eventually make a career out of criminal defense, I found that the first actual legal work that I did was for the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office. The summer of my first year in law school1 I applied, and was accepted, as an Intern. I was sent to work for a specialized unit within LADA's office known as the "Family Violence Division." The Family Violence Division, as the name implies dealt exclusively with Child Abuse and Domestic Violence charges. More than that, as a specialized unit, they handled only the most serious felony charges. Most of the cases dealt with by the Family Violence Team were murders.2 My job as an intern was mostly to organize files, copy things, run errands, and to do basic legal research.

In my second year in law school I became what is known as a "certified law student." This meant that I had passed both my Criminal Procedure and my Evidence classes and was able, if an attorney would supervise me, to appear in court and litigate like an attorney. The Los Angeles District Attorney's Office offered such an opportunity through their Preliminary Hearing Unit. For the second half of my second year; that entire summer; and the first half of my third year, I appeared in court for the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office, always with a Deputy District Attorney in the room, and prosecuted people. I did preliminary hearings, and pretrial motions, such as suppression hearings, Serna Motions, and Trombetta Motions.3

In my third year of law school I continued my internship and was transferred first to a General Felony team, and then to the Sex Crimes Division (which, like the Family Violence Division, was a specialized team that handled particularly heinous Sex Crimes). In those divisions I continued to do legal research for the trial attorneys and to write motions.

After graduating from Law School and passing the California Bar Exam I eventually took a Job as a trial attorney with the Tulare County District Attorney's Office. I figured it would be a good way to gain experience. The District Attorney at the time, and man named Phil Cline, made me promise, as a kid from Los Angeles, that I would put in at least three years of work for the office before leaving town. I made the promise and I meant it. As it turns out, it wasn't me that broke our arraignment.

For a little more than a year I worked as a prosecutor for the Tulare County District Attorney's Office. I did not, as a rule, enjoy my time there. It wasn't that I objected to doing my job as a prosecutor. I was proud to be a prosecutor, most of the time. I was never very happy prosecuting drug cases. All drugs should be legal. But I dealt with that as a fact of life, and did my job with pride.4 The problem was the people I worked for. I have never heard of, let alone experienced, a more toxic work environment than the Tulare County District Attorney's Office. The people who managed the office at that time believed in rule through fear, which is among the stupidest management philosophies ever devised. This was an office that fired one of their Deputy District Attorneys... about every six months. More than that it was made abundantly clear that everyone was expected to tow a very particular line in terms of their use of "discretion" and that those not willing to tow that line would be fired. I would briefly describe that party line as "Redneck Rambo Conservatism."5

I had spent more than two years working for the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office and I never, not once, felt that I wasn't the good guy in any situation. Almost immediately working for the Tulare County District Attorney's Office I was ordered to do things that I knew were unethical and/or unreasonable. To begin with, we were encouraged to file charges on cases that any reasonable attorney could tell could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. It was hoped (and sadly this hope was generally realized) that the other side would simply plead these defendants out rather than force our office into a trial where the weakness we KNEW were there would become apparent. I personally was told to file at least one case where it was obvious that the police had performed an illegal search to obtain the evidence the charge was based on6 and to file an opposition to a defense motion to dismiss a petty theft charge that was more than ten years old, where we already knew that we couldn't find the witnesses.7

My career started to end when I simply refused to take a case to trial where I didn't think (and therefore could not in good conscience argue to a jury) that we had proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was guilty. I told (that same supervisor) that if the case was mine it would be dismissed, and that if the Office really wanted it to go to trial, they should give it to someone who believed in it (like the idiot prosecutor who filed it).8 My supervisor did just that, and the aforementioned prosecutor embarrassed themselves and the Office by getting a not guilty verdict rendered against them.

I could tell that my bosses were growing displeased with me. I apparently lacked both the killer instinct, and the blind obedience to what I've already referred to as the "Party Line" to fit in as a Tulare County Deputy District Attorney. The end finally came, interesting enough, when I ran afoul of the local Department of Fish and Game.

Tulare County is not large enough, and does not have enough Deputy District Attorneys to assign the role of filing new cases full time to any group of people.9 Instead every Deputy District Attorney is given a set of what are referred to as "Blue Sheets"10 or new filings. Each deputy reads several of these a day and then decides whether to file charges against the defendant (and what charges to file) or alternatively to send the report back to the agency and request that further investigation be done, or to reject the case outright. A reasonable misdemeanor prosecutor rejects, on average, at least thirty percent of the requests for filings they get from police.

One Wednesday morning out at the Porterville Branch of the Tulare County District Attorney's Office, I got a Blue Sheet from the Department of Fish and Game. It seems the fine wardens were out walking one day in the Pixley Wildlife Reserve when they came upon a most disturbing site to their eyes; two Mexicans hunting with shotguns. The good wardens questioned these men and asked them to produce their hunting licenses... WHICH THEY DID. Each man produced a valid hunting license giving their address (within Tulare County) and declaring them, by name, to be In-State registered hunters. The noble wardens then asked these men to produce identification to prove that they were the guys whose names appeared on the hunting licenses... WHICH THEY DID. Each man produced a Driver's License from the state of Washington, with their picture, and the name matching their hunting license. The men explained that they were seasonal farm workers, and that they spent seven months of the year in Washington, and the other five in California. When they were in California (where each man had grown up) they lived at the same residence... the one that appeared on the license. Having obtained all of this information, the valiant wardens of course... arrested these men on the spot.

That's right, they arrested them. For fraud and perjury, which were the charges the idiot wardens were asking me to file against these men in their report. The fool forest cops decided that since these men never spent a total of six months living in the State of California that they couldn't qualify as residents, and that since they didn't qualify as residents that they had lied on their hunting application (which gives a discount to California Residents) and that since they lied, they should be charged with two separate criminal offenses, each of which could put them behind bars. I was, frankly, appalled by the suggestion, and I rejected the filing.

Having gotten that business done with I went on with getting my real work done... except that the next day I got a call from the warden's Lieutenant asking why I had rejected his foot soldiers filing request. I explained that these men were obviously following the law, and should not be charged with a crime.

Having gotten that business done with... again, I went on with getting my real work done... except that the next day after that, the warden's Lieutenant showed up at my office with a copy of the Fish and Game Code, and tried to explain the law to me. "You see" Ranger Rick explained to me as if to a child "It says right here that you need to reside continuously in the state for six months in order to be a resident." I calmly explained both that: 1. If I went to Las Vegas for the weekend, on Monday I would still be a resident of the State of California." And 2. You can legally (and the IRS backs me up on this) be a resident of more than one state. Ranger Rick wasn't having it and asked to speak to my supervisor, whom we have already mentioned a few times above.

Sometime later I got called into my supervisor's office. My supervisor explained to me that it was very important for our office have a good relationship with law enforcement and that I should just do what the Fish and Game people wanted. "But they're wrong." I protested. But he couldn't understand why. I explained about the weekend in Las Vegas analogy, and I explained about the multiple residence laws... he either didn't get it, or just didn't care. I think a bit of both. Finally, in exasperation, I suggested that we just fall back on what we had done the last time the oaf had asked me to something unethical, which was to suggest that the file just be given over to one of his better trained toadies, who would file whatever the Fish and Game troopers wanted. He said no. He said it was the right thing to do to file the case, and that he wanted me to do it. He told me, as is giving me a gift, that I could file the case as an infraction rather than as a misdemeanor like the Fish and Game warden had asked for.11 At this point I was exasperated, and I told my supervisor the truth, which is something you are never supposed to do when you live in a fear run management system.

I said that if these two poor Mexican farm workers had been two rich white men who had winter homes in Washington, and summer Homes in Three Rivers, that no one would be forcing this case forward. I was being asked to file this case because the defendants were people who no one in law enforcement cared about, and because my supervisor cared less about doing justice by them than about being a team player with a want-to-be police officer. "Are you saying that I'm being racist?" He asked. "Yes." I said. "Well I take offense to that." He said. "I'm sorry." I said. Then, the train already having left the track I just soldiered on through doing the right thing. I explained that I was going to file the case, as a misdemeanor, with both counts, as requested by the Department of Fish and Game.

"Why?" He asked. " I said you could file an infraction if you feel bad for these guys why are going to file a more serious charge."

"Because" I answered. "If I file an infraction they won't be eligible for a court appointed attorney. I want the Public Defender to get a hold of this case. And I hope they shred it."

That was Wednesday. On Friday I was called, again, to my supervisor's office. This time, the Assistant District Attorney was there, with a box in his lap. He literally said to me "Mr. Hagopian, as of this moment your services are no longer required by The Tulare County District Attorney's Office." I was told to gather my personal belongings from my office, while he waited at the door, and then I was unceremoniously told to get out, and that if I tried to come back onto their property I would be arrested.12

And so I gathered my things and I left. Over the years the ADA who fired me, along with the District Attorney himself, and the third in command, who had made up the "ruling management" of the office all retired. The supervisor responsible for my misery was, himself, fired, when a new District Attorney was elected. I try not to take joy in other people's hardship... but that was a hard one not to smile about.

A few months later I was able to start earning money taking Conflict Public Defender Jobs as an Independent Contractor with the County of Tulare. That allowed me to rent a small office and start my career, which was the life I had always wanted anyway, as a Criminal Defense Attorney. Eventually I expanded into a bigger office. I bought nicer furniture, and one day I hired an assistant. I started advertising, and I started building my reputation by smacking around the people who were left behind in my former employer's office.

In the beginning, I was fueled largely by a rage against my former bosses. I would beat them, and beat them, and would be a thorn in their sides, and I would prove to them that they had thrown away a good thing. And I did that. And now they're all gone. I've outlasted all of the management people I hated. The truth is, that the new DA is a really decent guy. From what I'm told the rule of management by terror no longer holds sway.

So I don't have the rage to fuel me anymore. Today I do my job, and I do it well, not to prove a point, but because it's what I want to do. It's what I've always wanted to do. I've written an entire blog post on answering the question "How can you do this job?" that explains my feelings about my work the best I can. In very very short summary, I am honored to be counted among the ranks of the Champions of Liberty that make up the Criminal Defense Bar. I defend the Constitution. I work to ensure the fairness of the Court System, and I protect the innocent from an overbearing army of well meaning, but often misguided law enforcement. I'm the guy in the suit, protecting the good guy, who is being accused of being a bad guy.

I think very few people get to have the job they dreamed of a child. I'm very lucky. And, so, as I sit here in my office, at 11:17 P.M. on a Tuesday, writing this blog post. I'm happy to be here. There is a simple phrase written right under my firm title on all of my business cards and stationery. "We're here to help." I like that.

1 Law School takes three years.

2 Los Angeles County averages more than 300 reported murders a year, or nearly one murder every day.

3 Trombetta motions are motions for dismissal based on law enforcement destruction of evidence. Serna motions are motions to dismiss because of the passage of time before a defendant brought to trial.

4 In fact I took so much pride in my work that I meticulously avoided breaking even the smallest of laws while I was a prosecutor. I didn't speed, and I didn't jaywalk. I always felt that the people who were given a chance to enforce the law had a duty to the people they served to follow those laws to the letter. I have learned that not everyone in law enforcement thinks that way. It is a damned shame that they don't. We would live in a better world if they did.

5 I want to point out two things here that I believe are important. #1. The situation in that office has improved by leaps and bounds in the last several years, mostly due to the exit of all of the former senior management, and the excellent cleanup work done by the current District Attorney Tim Ward, who I have a great deal of respect for. #2. Most Prosecutors, like most police officers, are good people trying their best to do good work in challenging circumstances. I have friends in the Tulare County District Attorney's Office to this day.

6 My Supervisor's exact words were "Make them go to court and file the motion to suppress. Maybe they won't.

7 That same supervisor told me to try to plea bargain the case, knowing we couldn't put on the evidence, which in effect meant that we should harass the defendant by making him repeatedly come to court, in the hopes that he would give up before the trial, which we couldn't possibly win.

8 That person, incidentally, still works as a Deputy DA for Tulare County.

9 Los Angeles does do this, and I believe Fresno does as well.

10 These were so named because back when they were filled out by hand, rather than on a computer, there were multiple carbon copies in the packet, and the top sheet was blue).

11 An infraction, unlike a misdemeanor cannot result in jail time, but only a fine being levied by the court. Because there is no risk of jail time, the right to be defended by the public defender does not extend to infraction defendants.

12 Again, no one believes me, but this is really what I was told, wor d for word.