Ex-D.A.’s law practice includes turn as defense attorney in DUI case
By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Eighteen months after leaving public office, Sonoma County’s former top prosecutor has returned to the legal arena, albeit on different terms.
Stephan Passalacqua, district attorney from 2003-2011, appeared in a Santa Rosa courtroom this week as the defense lawyer for a man accused of drunken driving.
After suffering a bitter re-election defeat to Jill Ravitch, Passalacqua said he considered a job with a San Francisco law firm before hanging a shingle in his hometown of Healdsburg.
He’s since delved into business law with a focus on real estate, wine and water issues, and picks up the occasional criminal case.
On Wednesday, Passalacqua stood with a client before Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Shelly Averill, who agreed to reduce a drunken-driving charge to reckless driving with alcohol.
“I can tell you right now that things happen in life for a reason,” Passalacqua said Thursday. “And I’m enjoying this part of my life.”
It is not unusual for district attorneys to continue working after they leave office.
Mike Mullins, Passalacqua’s predecessor, signed on with the Solano County District Attorney’s Office after he left in 2002.
Terence Hallinan, the San Francisco district attorney from 1996-2004, practices criminal law, appearing regularly in Sonoma County Superior Court.
Passalacqua, 49, said he considered a few “opportunities” after leaving in January 2011 and turned others down. Rumors swirled that he was angling for a judgeship or trying for deputy prosecutor posts in other counties.
But ultimately, Passalacqua went in a different direction, one that allows him to spend time with his wife and two daughters, he said.
He opened an office on Healdsburg Avenue, a few blocks away from the legal practice run by his brothers, Joe and Richard.
His business card lists transactions and government relations as other specialties. He said he has no plans to handle serious criminal matters in the future.
“I was looking at different things out there,” Passalacqua said of his search for a new career. “This kind of felt right.”
Some speculated the recession made it hard for Passalacqua to parlay his former position and family name into a prestigious position. Last year, district attorneys were laying people off instead of hiring, and private firms were watching their budgets.
“You have to remember the economy,” said Santa Rosa defense attorney Roy Miller, a former Lake County prosecutor.
Others said Passalacqua was doomed after losing a sometimes-testy election campaign against Ravitch, who enjoyed widespread support in the legal community.
In his last days as a lame duck, Passalacqua filled a slew of civil service prosecutor positions over Ravitch’s objections that she be allowed to pick her own staff.
“It’s a small town,” said Santa Rosa defense attorney Stephen Turer, a longtime legal and political adversary of Passalacqua’s.
Turer added that making the transition to civil law after more than two decades in criminal law could be difficult.
“This is highly technical stuff,” Turer said.
Greg Jacobs, an assistant district attorney under Passalacqua, said he counseled his former boss to return to his roots and go into private practice.
“For eight years, he was on call 24-7 and worked very long hours,” Jacobs said. “I also know he wanted to spend more time with his family.”
Passalacqua said he doesn’t expect to be an overnight success but he’s making steady progress. Lately, he’s handled buyout agreements, use permits and real estate acquisitions, among other things.
He’s also been making the rounds at legal conferences, he said.
“I really have a keen interest in water law,” he said. “There’s a lot going on.”
Passalacqua, who worked 22 years at various positions in the District Attorney’s Office, is not eligible to begin drawing a county government pension until next year.
If he starts collecting at 50, the earliest time possible, Passalacqua will be eligible for about $103,000 a year. If he waits until 60, he’ll qualify for about $155,000 a year.
Staff Writer Brett Wilkison contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.