Courthouse bully

Legal assistant Jim Carrao works the dark corners of the justice system. He serves papers, does background checks, files annoying cases--and knows just enough law to be dangerous.

While Carrao does not call himself a private investigator, he appears to skirt around the edges of the state law that governs that profession. Under that law, convicted felons cannot obtain a private investigator's license, and working as a PI without a license is a misdemeanor. Lawmart's own Web site and brochures advertise its services to include accident investigations and interviewing witnesses--activities that the law contemplates fall within the purview of licensed private investigators. Yet the law seems vague and uncertain, and it's riddled with exceptions.

Ken Nicolas, the deputy director of the Texas Board of Private Investigators and Private Security Agencies, says his department has been receiving complaints about Carrao for years but has been unable to prove that he is working as a private investigator. Because his investigators are so backlogged with complaints, Nicolas says, they don't have the resources to conduct a full-scale investigation of Carrao's business.

Although the Dallas judges first gave Carrao the authority to serve process in 1990, his ability to do so has also been under considerable scrutiny.

In 1993, Judge Joe Brown ordered Carrao's authorization to be revoked because he had failed to inform the court of his arson conviction in his original application to serve process. Carrao appealed the ruling, and his application, accompanied by a letter of reference from attorney Tom Mills, was approved.

Now the courts are once again deciding whether Carrao should serve process. In February, Presiding Civil District Courts Judge David Godbey and Presiding Family District Courts Judge Dee Miller ordered all process servers to resubmit their applications. Under a new rule, anyone with a felony conviction will not be approved. Carrao has reapplied, but his application is still under consideration.

Attorney Tom Mills suspects that the order came in response to a specific complaint about Carrao--most likely a complaint from attorney Carroll. "The bottom line is," says Mills, "Is Jim Carrao trustworthy enough to walk up to you and hand you a piece of paper?"

That's a question the legal assistants' division of the State Bar of Texas is trying to answer.

Executive Director Norma Hackler confirms that Carrao is a member, despite a rule that bans convicted felons from joining and another that requires legal assistants to work under the direct supervision of a single attorney. In his promotional brochures, Carrao proudly lists his membership status in the legal assistants' division, along with his educational background.

Hackler offers little explanation for why Carrao's membership application was approved, saying she would have to investigate the matter before making any specific comment. However, because the division has no regulatory authority and exists primarily to support legal assistants, she says conducting background checks on members isn't a high priority.

"We usually go by the honor system," she says.

That the legal system would allow a courthouse bully like Jim Carrao to thrive speaks volumes about the system itself.

There are few restraints on pro se litigants who treat the law as their hobby, the courtroom as a chance to get even with those who trifle with them. The ethical code of conduct that applies to lawyers and provides the basis for disciplining them does not apply to Jim Carrao. He has no law license to lose. No legal reputation to ruin. Reluctant to slap him back, judges are more likely to allow him to plead ignorance and think twice about sanctioning him even for his most abusive behavior.

Unchecked by any court, disciplinary board, or lawyer, he can continue to ply his trade, availing himself of any vagueness in the law without quite violating it, bringing suits meant to intimidate and harass, and proving that a little bit of knowledge mixed with a lot of bitterness can be a dangerous thing.

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