2 Investigates: Squatter, housing activist takes on state bar

OAKLAND, Calif. (KTVU) -- A self-described squatter who first made national headlines for successfully using an obscure California law to become the rightful owner of a house without buying or inheriting it, is now waging a new legal fight with the State of California to become an attorney.
 
While Steven DeCaprio, 43, of Oakland recently passed the bar exam, the State Bar of California refused to admit him based on what it called a "lack of candor" and a ten year-old misdemeanor trespassing conviction.
 
Good Moral Character?
 
KTVU first met DeCaprio at a home in West Oakland in 2013.  More than ten years earlier, DeCaprio admits he was homeless when he cut a chain on a gate to the previously abandoned property and moved in.
 
DeCaprio also began paying the property taxes and, after five years without any contact from the previous owner of record, legal experts told 2 Investigates DeCaprio had achieved title to the property through a law known as adverse possession.
 
While also serving as the CEO of a housing rights group, called Land Action, DeCaprio went through the Law Office Study Program and began preparing to take the State Bar Exam in California.
 
"It's a three day exam. It's grueling. It's emotionally exhausting and to prepare for it, you pretty much have to give up your life," said DeCaprio.  "I studied very hard and really put in all the time I needed to and I passed it."
 
However, anyone seeking admission to the State Bar of California must also meet a "good moral character" requirement decided by the state's Committee of Bar Examiners.  
 
After an exchange of information and an informal conference with DeCaprio, he received a letter of denial stating he had failed "to establish that he was of good moral character."
 
DeCaprio was arrested for trying to occupy another abandoned property in Berkeley in 2004 and was ultimately convicted on three misdemeanor counts of "Unauthorized Entry of a Dwelling."
 
In addition to his personal experience as a squatter, DeCaprio thinks his denial is related to his attempts to help others occupy abandoned properties in the Bay Area.
 
"I think that (the State Bar) is concerned with the organizing work I've done, the housing advocacy, the fact that I use adverse possession as a strategy to access affordable housing," said DeCaprio.  
 
The State Bar of California declined KTVU's requests for an interview, citing privacy rules, but it provided the link -- http://admissions.calbar.ca.gov/MoralCharacter/Statement.aspx  -- to a statement on the Moral Character Requirement on the bar's website.  
 
Rarely Excluded
 
2 Investigates discovered DeCaprio's application to the State Bar is one of only a handful recently denied on "moral character" grounds.
 
In 2014, the State Bar received 8,202 applications for Determination of Moral Character, but only 62, or less than one percent, of them received an "adverse" determination.  Even smaller percentages of applicants were denied in 2013 and 2012.
 
In its statement, the State Bar says those who have been convicted of violent felonies, felonies involving moral turpitude and breaches of fiduciary duty are presumed to not be of good moral character.
 
Those who support DeCaprio say the Committee of Bar Examiners has admitted others with criminal histories far worse than DeCaprio's.
 
"My approach to them was, you're kidding right?" said Oakland attorney Dan Siegel who agreed to help DeCaprio file an appeal with the state.
 
"I think that the Supreme Court would find that Steven's activities fall well within the boundaries of behavior of people who have been admitted and have become successful lawyers," said Siegel.
 
It's the kind of appeal with which Siegel is especially familiar.  He was denied admittance to the State Bar after his days of organizing demonstrations at UC Berkeley in the late 1960's.  Siegel says he's one of only three lawyers to take his appeal to the California Supreme Court and win.
 
Siegel says the State Bar should reconsider its ruling in Steven DeCaprio's case too.
 
"I think this case is 100 percent about Steven's political activity," said Siegel.  "A peaceful trespass that results in a misdemeanor conviction is yesterday's news, so it's only the context in which Steven's conviction occurred that appeared to be of interest to the State Bar."
 
Appeal Pending
 
A judge granted a motion by the State Bar Counsel to dismiss DeCaprio's appeal, but he and Siegel have reinitiated the appeal process and are waiting for the state to schedule a hearing on the merits of the case.
 
DeCaprio also continues his housing activism in Oakland and has recently launched an effort to create 100 so-called "micro farms" on vacant land in the next five years.  DeCaprio's organization, Land Action, describes the project as an anti-gentrification tactic.  
 
The project could come with more legal challenges for DeCaprio -- challenges he says he'll be better able to handle as a card-carrying attorney.
 
"I'm going to fight for my place in this community because this is where I belong," said DeCaprio. "This is my home."
 
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