SAN FERNANDO — For more than a decade, Los Angeles Police Officer Peter Acuna was the law. Then, as an attorney, Acuna practiced the law.
Now, he's accused of breaking it.
Authorities say Acuna made an appearance this summer in San Fernando Municipal Court on behalf of a man facing domestic violence charges.
Trouble is, the 51-year-old Acuna was no lawyer. He had been disbarred four months earlier.
"He just walked right into the courtroom with his business card and made an appearance on the record," said San Fernando Police Det. Lance Steaman.
Acuna may have been missing a license to practice law at the time but he apparently hadn't forgotten how.
He persuaded a judge to drop his client's $50,000 bail and release him on his own recognizance during a July 8 court hearing.
"He was totally confident," said the client, Dan Wray, a Los Angeles building inspector. "He seemed to know what he was doing."
Acuna, who Steaman said worked for the Los Angeles Police Department from 1969 to 1981, turned himself in Tuesday. He was charged with practicing law after being disbarred, a felony crime.
Lawmakers apparently believe attorneys should know better. For all others, practicing law without a license is a misdemeanor.
Acuna was released and is scheduled to be arraigned Jan. 19.
Barry L. Cohen, Acuna's lawyer, did not deny the allegations. "The man was supporting his wife and had a sick child at home, and did what he had to do," Cohen said.
Cohen added that Acuna felt the he did not receive a fair hearing before his license was taken away and therefore "he does not recognize the authority of the state bar."
Wray, who had been charged with spousal abuse, said he became suspicious only after he had paid Acuna $5,000 up front, and then Acuna asked for an additional $4,000. The trial was expected to last four days.
Wray told an acquaintance, who happened to be a lawyer, about his suspicions.
The lawyer called the state bar and learned Acuna was disbarred in March for mishandling clients' funds.
"There I was, in the middle of a case, and I find out my attorney is not an attorney," Wray said.
At first, he said he didn't think about calling police. He just wanted to hire a real lawyer. "All I could think was let's just get this nightmare over with," Wray said.
His new lawyer, however, did file a complaint with the police.
Wray said he pleaded no contest to disturbing the peace in November.
He said Acuna still owes him $3,000 of the $9,000 he paid him.
But Wray said he did get one last bit of free legal advice from Acuna:
"You should have stayed with me," he quoted Acuna as saying. "If you'd have lost the case, you could have had it thrown out because I'm not an attorney."