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Charges Reduced in Switching of Men's Identities

They say their lawyer told them to keep up the charade begun at a drunk driving arrest.

May 29, 2003|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

A judge reduced charges Wednesday against a 23-year-old man who said he was simply following the advice of his lawyer -- an associate of Mark Geragos, one of the nation's best-known criminal defense attorneys.

Christopher Jauregui and his friend Cesar Castaneda faced up to four years in prison because, according to their current lawyers, they put too much faith in the flawed legal strategy of their attorney, Shepard Kopp.

Three years ago, Jauregui was charged with drunk driving. Castaneda was in the car. Jauregui told police he was Castaneda and gave Castaneda's birth date as his own.

The charade continued for almost a year. Castaneda showed up in court four times in the Jauregui case accompanied by Kopp or other lawyers from his firm. Defense attorneys and prosecutors alleged that Kopp, who represented both men, orchestrated the continuation of the masquerade.

Conspiracy Charges

When authorities realized what had happened, they searched Geragos' offices and ultimately filed conspiracy charges against Jauregui and Castaneda. No one else has been charged.

At the conclusion of the preliminary hearing on those charges Wednesday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michelle Rosenblatt said the plot's alleged mastermind had not been charged in the case.

"The most culpable party is not at this table," she said.

Rosenblatt reduced felony conspiracy and false impersonation charges against Jauregui to misdemeanors, and sentenced Castaneda to 50 hours of community service after he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of conspiracy. Jauregui will be sentenced later.

"This case just burns me," said Sandra J. Applebaum, a court-appointed lawyer defending Jauregui. "I don't think [Jauregui and Castaneda] should be prosecuted for this. But if they are, then the lawyers should be too."

Kopp's lawyer, Harland W. Braun, said Castaneda and Jauregui were over-prosecuted.

Braun said Kopp at all times acted within the law. As a criminal defense lawyer, "you cannot go into court and say your client's done something wrong," he said, referring to Jauregui's initial deception of police. "Shep was doing what a lawyer should do.... It's an acceptable strategy."

Geragos said Kopp "made no affirmative misrepresentations to the court."

As part of an investigation into the case, the district attorney's office searched the law offices of Geragos & Geragos in January 2002.

But by May of that year, prosecutors had decided not to file charges against any of the lawyers in the Geragos firm, including Kopp.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman concluded that there was insufficient evidence, but said in his report that Kopp might have violated professional ethics rules governing the actions of lawyers licensed to practice in California.

Kopp testified that he devised his legal strategy to extend the DUI case beyond the one-year statute of limitations, thus anticipating a dismissal of all charges. He said he feared that Castaneda, though not the driver, might have been legally culpable for permitting Jauregui to use his identity.

"Maybe it wasn't very good advice that I gave them," Kopp testified in court at a hearing last month, "but I don't see it rising to the level of a conspiracy.... I guess I don't see that listening to what your lawyer tells you to do is any overt act," which a conspiracy charge requires.

Jauregui hired the Geragos firm in August 2000, a month after he was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving.

Geragos, who defended Winona Ryder in her shoplifting case and represents murder suspect Scott Peterson, charged Jauregui $5,000 and assigned the misdemeanor case to Kopp, son of a prominent ex-legislator and judge.

Kopp began representing Castaneda for free, Kopp testified last month.

In July 2001, when Kopp thought the statute of limitations had expired, an associate from his firm showed the judge, Carlos A. Uranga, the police mug shot of the man who had been arrested -- Jauregui.

Uranga looked at Castaneda in the courtroom and cleared him, but refused to dismiss the case.

Authorities later determined that Castaneda was in the car with Jauregui the night he was arrested, and filed the felony charges against both of them.

Outside the courtroom Wednesday, Jauregui said he never expected any problems because he had hired "the best [lawyers] money could buy. I had my dream team."

Following Advice

"I don't know anything about law," Jauregui said. "I was following the lawyers' advice. I never really questioned their strategies.

"If I had known what they were advising me to do was a crime, I would have gone with the public defender," he added. "It would have been over quicker and cheaper."

In a hearing in the case last month, Geragos testified that he blames himself for the situation, that he has lost sleep over the case and that he had refunded Jauregui's fee.

"It's extremely disturbing to me that they came in, that they retained the [law] office, and that now both of them are facing what I believe to be additional felony charges when I don't think that either one of these guys did anything legally or criminally wrong," he said.

Several legal ethics experts questioned Kopp's conduct.

"You can't counsel your client to engage in criminal activity, whether it's in the boardroom or in the Superior Court," said lawyer Diane L. Karpman, who specializes in legal ethics. "There is a very clear line. You don't help your client to perpetrate a crime."

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