Drinking and Lawyering

The Oregon State Bar opens an unusual investigation after a well-known Portland lawyer's third DUII.

A prominent Portland defense lawyer is in the uncomfortable position of defending himself in court and at the Oregon State Bar after racking up his third drunken-driving arrest.

Paul Petterson, president of Multnomah Defenders Inc., faces trial April 22 in Washington County Circuit Court after pleading not guilty to charges of driving under the influence of intoxicants and refusing to take a breath test.

Meantime, the state bar is investigating Petterson for possible violations of Oregon law and the bar's professional conduct rules. If the bar formally prosecutes Petterson, he faces a range of sanctions, including possible suspension and disbarment.

It's a long fall from grace for Petterson, who heads one of only six firms in Portland with a contract to provide court-appointed legal defense. A former federal public defender, Petterson took over MDI in 2000 after a stint in Washington, D.C., as indigent defense coordinator for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Petterson, 57, declined to comment.

A regular at the Rialto billiard club downtown, according to other lawyers who hang out there, Petterson entered court-ordered diversion programs after prior DUII arrests in 1993 and 2006. His latest legal run-in caps a bizarre tale that unfolded Oct. 9 and involves his 53-year-old wife, Marie.

According to a Beaverton police report, sometime that Tuesday morning Marie Petterson's 1998 black Ford Explorer rear-ended another vehicle (the report doesn't say what kind) at the intersection of Southwest Cedar Hills Boulevard and Park Way.

The woman in the other car, 48-year-old Kimberle McGaw, told police Marie Petterson had trouble walking when she got out of her car and had to brace herself to stay standing. Petterson seemed confused and didn't recognize her own front license plate lying on the ground after it was knocked off in the crash, McGaw says.

After Petterson drove off without exchanging information, McGaw called the cops, who knocked on the Pettersons' door about 6 pm. They got no answer, but as they drove away, a dispatcher gave them the Pettersons' home telephone number. When the cops dialed the number and identified themselves, the woman who answered hung up.

The two officers went back to the house, but again there was no answer at the door. They were still knocking at shortly before 7 pm when a red Ford Taurus pulled up and Paul Petterson got out. As Petterson asked the police what was going on, the cops say they noticed his bloodshot eyes and an "overwhelming" smell of alcohol.

Marie Petterson opened the door to tell police to "fuck off" and tried to slam the door on them, according to the police report. As she fled upstairs, police arrested her for hit-and-run driving. She later told police she had consumed two bottles of wine that day. Her next court hearing is April 9 in Beaverton Municipal Court.

While police arrested Petterson's wife, a third officer arrived to deal with Petterson for suspected drunken driving. Petterson said he'd had two Widmer hefeweizens at the Rialto, but he refused to take a breath test. He was arrested and booked into Washington County Jail along with his wife.

The state bar told Petterson on Jan. 16 it's investigating him for possible violations of two rules. The first is an Oregon Rule of Professional Conduct that forbids "committing a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness or fitness." The second is a state law against "a course of conduct of such nature that, if the attorney were applying for admission to the bar, the application should be denied."

A letter from the bar seeks information on Petterson's past DUIIs and asks whether his drinking affects his ability to practice law. Petterson so far hasn't cooperated with the bar probe, citing the pending court case against him.

Mark Johnson, a past president of the Oregon State Bar, says he's never heard of a lawyer being investigated for DUII. "I have heard talk before of trying to do this, but I have never actually seen it done," Johnson says.

The bar typically encourages lawyers who have a chemical dependency to get treatment. The rule against criminal conduct is usually reserved for felonies like theft, fraud or perjury. DUII is a misdemeanor.

In another twist: The bar complaint that prompted the investigation was submitted by Kevin Kelley, the Washington County deputy district attorney who's prosecuting Petterson on the DUII charge.

"Pretty chickenshit" is how Portland defense lawyer Alex Hamalian describes Kelley's decision to lodge a bar complaint before the case has made it through court. John Strait, a professor at the Seattle University School of Law, says Kelley's role in reporting the case is troubling.

"A bar grievance is like the nuclear bomb," Strait says. "It does suggest some ulterior motive."

Kelley says he's required by law to report anything that raises questions about another lawyer's honesty or fitness.

"I had a duty," he says. "It's as simple as that."

WWeek 2015

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.