An Oklahoma attorney who writes best-selling legal thrillers is being allowed to keep his law license despite four arrests for drunken driving and one for public intoxication.
William G. Bernhardt, 54, has written more than 20 novels including “Primary Justice,” “Double Jeopardy,” “Murder One,” “Criminal Intent” and “Capitol Betrayal.” He has more than 10 million books in print.
He has been a licensed attorney in Oklahoma since 1986.
Last week, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Bernhardt can keep his law license — if he stays sober.
He was ordered to refrain from any use of alcohol, mind-altering substances or illegal drugs over the next two years and a day.
He also was ordered to work with the group Lawyers Helping Lawyers and to have weekly contact with his mentor.
He was warned he will be suspended for two years and a day if he violates those conditions.
Justices acted after concluding “the repetition of the DUI offenses” reflected adversely on the legal profession and showed an indifference to legal obligations.
The Supreme Court regularly disciplines attorneys who violate the law. Attorneys can be privately reprimanded, publicly censured, suspended from practicing law or outright banned from the profession.
Justices acknowledged Bernhardt’s disciplinary case was unusual because he hasn’t actually practiced law in more than 15 years.
“He is very successful in his chosen profession of writing and has no present intention to return to the practice of law,” Justice James R. Winchester wrote in the majority opinion.
“No clients were or could have been adversely affected by the ... conduct.”
Justices decided what to do with Bernhardt after a panel, known as a professional responsibility tribunal, gathered evidence.
Four of the justices wanted to suspend Bernhardt until Oct. 10, 2018, when he completes probation on a felony case resulting from one of the arrests.
Bernhardt’s tribunal reported to the Supreme Court that he is honest, highly ethical and law-abiding, except when using alcohol. The tribunal also reported he is determined not to drink again.
Last year, he testified to the tribunal, “It’s true that I don’t practice law anymore and I haven’t for a long time, but I worked hard to get that degree and I’m proud of it and I’m proud of the school I went to. ... I would like to keep it.”
Bernhardt practiced law in Tulsa from 1986 to 1996. He now lives in Midwest City and teaches writing at Rose State College.
Bernhardt did not begin drinking alcohol at all until he was in his 40s but then became an occasional binge drinker, according to evidence presented to his tribunal.
His attorney, Gary Rife, told justices that Bernhardt “made a serious commitment to maintaining his sobriety” in early 2012 and “has been completely sober since Dec. 10, 2011,” three days after his last arrest.
He was first arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol on Feb. 23, 2007, in Tulsa, records show. He pleaded no contest to a municipal DUI charge, according to news accounts.
He was next arrested for driving under the influence on March 18, 2007, in Jenks after striking a mailbox, records show. He pleaded no contest to a municipal DUI charge.
He was arrested for public intoxication on Nov. 2, 2007, in Tulsa when he appeared in a drunken state at his child’s elementary school for a morning parent conference, records show.
He pleaded no contest to a municipal public intoxication charge.
He was arrested again for drunken driving on May 26, 2011, in Midwest City. Police reported finding an open bottle of vodka in the vehicle.
This time, he pleaded guilty to a felony DUI charge and was placed on probation for six years. He also pleaded guilty to another felony, aggravated attempting to elude a police officer.
His last arrest — on Dec. 7, 2011, — was in Lincoln, Neb. He was fined $1,000 and placed on house arrest in Oklahoma for 120 days after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor DUI charge.
He sought treatment after his 2007 arrests and again after his 2011 arrests, court records show. That treatment included a 31-day stay in early 2012 at a prominent California rehabilitative center.
He counts Dec. 10, 2011, as the date of the start of his sobriety because that was the date he was clearheaded after he last drank.
He declined to comment last week on the Supreme Court’s decision.