A bill targeting notary publics who prey on immigrants by pretending to be lawyers and providing legal services cleared its first hurdle at the Arizona Legislature on Wednesday.
Senate Bill 1271 passed out of the Senate Government Committee with a 6-1 vote.
The measure would allow county attorneys, not just the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, to initiate proceedings against notary publics, or notarios as they're known among Hispanics, who engage in the unauthorized practice of immigration and nationality law. The bill also would increase the penalty for this offense from a Class 6 felony to a Class 4 felony.
Arizona law defines notary publics as individuals who can witness the signing of documents and verify the identities of signers but cannot offer legal advice or recommendations on document preparation. They’re also required by law to include in their written or verbal advertising that they’re not attorneys and cannot give legal advice about immigration or any other legal matters.
Democratic state Senator Martin Quezada, the bill’s main sponsor, noted during Wednesday’s committee hearing that in a number of Latin American countries, a notary public is a licensed attorney who can practice law. Because of that, he said, many immigrants believe that a notary public in the United States can perform the same services as an attorney.
“What’s happening is that a lot of individuals are falling into that misunderstanding and are really being defrauded by these individuals,” Quezada said. “They’re performing certain legal work for them and are taking large sums of money and messing up a lot of the cases that could otherwise be done correctly.”
In an e-mail to New Times, Mia Garcia, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Attorney General's Office, said the office “welcomes legislation that helps us prosecute notario fraud.”
The State Bar of Arizona, the Arizona Hispanic Bar Association, and the the American Immigration Lawyers Association's Arizona chapter were among the groups voicing support for SB 1271 during the committee hearing. Several immigration attorneys also testified and talked about the devastation notary fraud has inflicted on the lives of immigrants.
Ruben Reyes, an immigration attorney in Phoenix, told stories of immigrants who went to notary publics for help with their immigration paperwork and ended up jeopardizing their immigration cases. He said once the damage is done, it’s “extremely difficult” to track down the notary publics because they close their businesses and disappear.
Val Peña, owner of Americana Services, a business in Phoenix certified to help people prepare legal documents, was one of the few people who testified against Quezada’s bill. She said that in the past 15 years that she has been a notary public, she hasn’t had anyone complain about her services. She fears that SB 1271 would hurt her business and prevent her from continuing to help individuals prepare legal documents.
Tomas Robles, executive director of the Arizona Center for Empowerment, wasn’t at the hearing but told New Times in a phone interview that he believes Quezada has good intentions with this bill but that it doesn’t capture the full scope of the problem.
“We speak to countless families who get robbed of their money by attorneys,” he said. “These are licensed attorneys. These aren’t notarios. Yes, a notario may rob you of $500, but it has been attorneys who’ve taken $5,000 or $10,000 from people who turn to them for help.”
Robles added that he’s concerned SB 1271 would criminalize people who are “doing good work” by helping immigrants fill out their immigration paperwork. He said immigrants often can’t afford to hire an attorney so they go to community organizations for help.
Quezada said his bill is not intended to go after individuals like Peña or community organizations that help immigrants. Instead, he said it’s intended to go after notary publics who engage in the unauthorized practice of law.
“This bill doesn’t necessarily go after good actors,” he said. “If you are performing good work and you’re not performing immigration law as a notary, this bill won’t apply to you.
“It only applies to licensed notary publics who are performing immigration services as a lawyer,” he continued. “If they’re simply helping with document preparation, this will not apply to them.”
Republican Senator Steve Smith was the only committee member who voted against the bill.
He said changing the penalty from a Class 6 felony to a Class 4 felony was “quite a leap.” He listed a number of offenses considered Class 4 felonies — including using a minor for the purposes of prostitution and causing death by use of a vehicle — to make the case that the proposed penalty is too harsh.
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However, in explaining his vote, Smith hinted that he was open to supporting the bill if it includes an amendment that lowers the penalty.
Republican Senator John Kavanagh, chairman of the Senate Government Committee, voted for the bill but also said he felt that increasing the penalty was “a bit of an overstretch.” He warned Quezada that there is “a graveyard for dead legislative bills” and that most bills die because of stiff penalties.
In response, Quezada said he’s open to suggestions and plans to continue working to improve the bill.
SB 1271 was scheduled be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee today. If it passes, it’ll go to the Senate floor for a vote.