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Ethics Opinions Every South Carolina Attorney Should Know: Part IX, Committing Crimes

As part of the oath lawyers take upon their admission to the South Carolina bar, they swear to “maintain the dignity of the legal system.” Criminal activity by an attorney is inconsistent with this oath.

Attorneys are routinely disciplined for breaking the law, with the sanction bearing some correlation to the seriousness of the crime. See e.g. In the Matter of Anonymous Member of South Carolina Bar, 293 S.C. 329, 360 S.E.2d 322 (1987) (use and possession of marijuana by attorney, while not crime of moral turpitude, constitutes violation of Code of Professional Responsibility [now Rules of Professional Conduct] and Rule of Disciplinary Procedure, and thus warrants private reprimand); In the Matter of Floyd, 328 S.C. 167, 492 S.E.2d 791 (1997) (one year suspension for conviction of possession of heroin); In the Matter of  Dunn, 366 S.C. 535, 623 S.E.2d 98 (2005) (twice engaging services of a prostitute and consuming illegal drugs on those occasions, together with subsequent arrest and plea of guilty to possession of marijuana and possession of methamphetamine, warranted indefinite suspension from practice of law); In the Matter of Kenyon, 348 S.C. 233, 559 S.E.2d 590 (2002) (disbarment for attorney convicted of operation of racketeering enterprise, with racketeering acts including wire fraud, money laundering, and murder).  Even repeated convictions for serious traffic offenses have given rise to discipline. See In the Matter of Sarratt, 382 S.C. 228, 676 S.E.2d 317 (2009) (four month suspension for repeat driving convictions, along with being charged, but not convicted for unlawful use of telephone and marijuana possession).

The Supreme Court considers an attorney’s criminal act to be violations of Professional Conduct Rule 8.4(a) (violating the Rules of Professional Conduct) and Rule 8.4(b) (committing a criminal act reflecting adversely on his honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer).  For many crimes, the activity also violates Professional Conduct Rule 8.4(c) (engaging in conduct involving moral turpitude) and Rule 8.4(d) (engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation).

Criminal acts further violate the Lawyer Disciplinary Enforcement Rule 7(a)(1) (violating the Rules of Professional Conduct), Rule 7(a)(6) (violating the oath of office taken upon admission to practice law in this state) and Rule 7(a)(5) (engaging in conduct tending to bring the legal profession into disrepute and demonstrating an unfitness to practice law). For many crimes the activity also violates Lawyer Disciplinary Enforcement Rule 7(a)(4) (being convicted of serious crimes and crimes of moral turpitude.

To be reinitiated to the practice of law after being suspended or disbarred “for conduct resulting in a criminal conviction and sentence, the lawyer must also successfully complete all conditions of the sentence, including, but not limited to, any period of probation or parole.” Rule 32 and 33(f)(10), South Carolina Rules for Lawyer Disciplinary Enforcement.

The lesson of Anonymous et al: lawyers should not engage in criminal activity.

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