Dallas Bar Association

Crimes Committed in the Law Office

By Heather J. Barbieri

Many of our seemingly innocent in-office activities can lead to ethical complaints, civil liability, and in some instances, criminal charges. Here, we will discuss those actions that can end in criminal charges. Even in cases where an individual is unaware that their actions constitute a crime, in the State of Texas, it is no defense to prosecution that the actor was ignorant of the provisions of any law once the law has taken effect. Texas Penal Code § 8.03.

Keep Your Hands To Yourself

Simply put, physical contact in the office can be dangerous. Obvious examples of assault are striking, kissing, or fondling another person, without their consent. But there are less obvious contacts that can be criminal. In Texas, a person commits Assault by Contact by intentionally or knowingly causing physical contact with another when the person knows, or should reasonably believe, that the other will regard the contact as offensive or provocative. TPC § 22.01(3).

Hugging, putting your arm around another person, and even a brief pat or massage, can be deemed an assault. Even if the actor did not realize the person would be offended, it will come down to whether the actor should have reasonably believed that the person would be. So the next time the urge comes to hug a fellow employee, or even a client, consider whether this gesture could offend the other party. If so, refraining from the contact would be prudent.

Computer Access Denied

When parting ways with an employer, some employees feel entitled to download files, motions, and other data stored on the firm’s computer. However, without permission from the owner, that is a crime in Texas. It is a Breach of Computer Security to knowingly access, or delete files from, a computer, computer network or computer system without the effective consent of the owner. TPC § 33.02. An owner is simply a person who has title to the property, possession of the property, or a greater right to possession of the property than the actor. TPC § 1.07(35). This type of an offense can range from a Class B Misdemeanor up to a First Degree Felony, depending on the value of the benefit. The most effective way to avoid criminal liability is to obtain permission from the owner before downloading or deleting any firm files.

Surprisingly, even simply accessing another’s computer to check a calendar, or double-check the status of a case, can constitute a Breach of Computer Security. Though probably a common occurrence, regardless of one’s innocent intent, the act of knowingly accessing the other’s computer without consent makes it a crime. This type of crime can be avoided through a written office policy or first obtaining permission.

Being Safe Can Be Criminal

Late night work hours, office location and even the fear of a client or an opposing party may cause some employees to want to carry protection. However, in Texas, it is a Class A misdemeanor to intentionally, knowingly or recklessly carry on, or about, one’s person, a handgun, illegal knife or club. There is an exception if the actor is on his own premises or on premises under his control. But if an office, for instance, is not under the actor’s control, the possession of a weapon therein is unlawful, and carries a punishment of up to one year in county jail and up to a $4,000 fine.

A Suspended License Is No License

Occasionally, and for numerous reasons, law licenses may be temporarily suspended. But if one is not a licensed attorney in good standing with the State Bar or licensing authority of the state, it is a crime to hold oneself out as a lawyer. If done with the intent to obtain an economic benefit, it is a third degree felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, and up to a $10,000 fine.

Thus, it is a crime to act as a lawyer while one’s license is suspended, even briefly. In fact, it has been held that “the retroactive effect of the payment of State Bar dues had no effect on appellant’s conviction for falsely holding himself out as an attorney while not in good standing with the State Bar.” Satterwhite v. State. So, for the sake of caution, regardless of economic benefit, do not provide legal advice or act as an attorney, for any purposes, while not in good standing with the State Bar.

Read Before Signing

It is oftentimes referred to as “mispleading.” But filing a document containing false information can easily lead to a charge of TamperingWith a Governmental Record. It is an offense to “make, present, or use a governmental record with knowledge of its falsity.” TPC § 37.10(5). It is not uncommon for such cases to be pursued by prosecutors. Since a file-marked motion, pleading or document is a governmental record, it is critical that all statements in it be true. Before signing a pleading, read it thoroughly to avoid the nightmare some attorneys have faced trying to avoid a felony conviction.

Unfortunately, there are many other possible crimes that people might commit without knowing the offenses exist. But fortunately, most offenses are more obvious, ensuring that the real crimes occur outside the office.

Heather J. Barbieri is a Board-Certified Criminal Defense Attorney. She can be reached at hbarbieri@barbierilawfirm.com.

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