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Daniel Smith got his start defending the accused in high school, where he would argue with the headmaster, stating that the rules were not being applied evenly among students. And though he won the Lowell Whiteman School’s award for having the school’s highest academic average, Mr. Smith was not invited to return the next year. He says, “It was hard for the staff to counter the arguments I made on behalf of my clients...I mean, fellow students!”
Over his career, Mr. Smith has come across many prosecutors that have cynically presumed guilt. But he strongly believes in the presumption of innocence and is proud that as a criminal defense attorney he gets to argue for this constitutional right. “I believe in my clients. I believe that they walk into my office innocent until proven guilty and I want them to take comfort in knowing I will defend them, and I will use all my experience to find a way to get their lives back to normal, back to work, and back to their family.”
Daniel Smith was inspired to become a lawyer at an early age by his father, Ralph G. Smith, Jr. Given that both he and his grandfather had a history in law, it seemed to be in his genetics. “I remember a family friend telling me in confidence ‘your father never lost a case – he won’t brag about it, but it is true! He even tried a case with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Rehnquist as his assistant when they were young, and they won that case in Prescott, AZ.”
Mr. Smith keeps his grandfather Red’s Chicago Kent sheepskin diploma and his father’s Northwestern Law school diploma next to his own in the lobby of his office.
As a young man, Daniel Smith rode horses, rounded up cattle, and raised 4-H steers. In high school, he raced motocross motorcycles and skied, later becoming a ski instructor while attending Northern Arizona University. “I skied too much and had to finish undergraduate school at Arizona State University where there was no snow to tempt me.” Mr. Smith was selling real estate when he took a motivational class and realized he was meant to be a trial lawyer. He was accepted to Cal Western on a scholarship and finished in record time. In fact, before his second year, he was singled out by a classmate to clerk for some of the best federal criminal defense attorneys in the country. “When I wrote appellate briefs that were filed in the highest courts in the land and was asked to stay and work with them after passing the bar, I knew criminal defense was my calling.” Mr. Smith has practiced only criminal defense since then. “I know all the prosecutors’ tricks. I have the advantage in having always been a defense lawyer.”
Daniel Smith will tell you he has always been competitive – whether it was racing motorcycles or arguing a case. For his very first case he was sent to Indio, CA for an evidentiary motion to dismiss a criminal case for his boss, Frank Ragen. During the case he cross examined the officer and argued that his client was not illegally passing on the right behind a string of cars during spring break in Palm Springs. “I called Frank and told him I thought I was winning and he chuckled and said that was the sign of a good lawyer, ‘we always think we might be winning.’” Frank was pleasantly surprised when he received another phone call from Mr. Smith later that day, informing him that he had, in fact, won.
Less than one year ago, Daniel Smith had a federal jury trial and asked Jon Pettis to help him. The client had been accused of importing 20 kilos of drugs in the spare tire of his vehicle. It was a true David verses Goliath type of case, and when the San Diego Defenders team rolled up a spare tire and GPS devices in a wagon used for Girl Scout Cookies, the government lawyers just laughed. In the end, through passionate opening statements by Mr. Smith, superb exhibit organization by Paralegal Layla Smith, and intensely precise and technical closing statements by Jon Pettis, the jury found their client not guilty and the government attorneys were visibly shaken. Mr. Smith later found out from the courtroom clerk in that over the 10 years she had been there and over the 400 trials she had seen, that only 3 defendants had been found “not guilty” in front of this judge.
As Mr. Smith’s grandfather told him, “Defending the underdog in this great country is a great privilege. Good lawyers are ahead of their time and help keep law enforcement honest and keep them from abusing their power.” It is important to know that if one works hard and thinks creatively, a boutique law firm, like San Diego Defenders can take on the mighty United States Attorney’s Office and win. “We are always hopeful, always creative, and always confident that we can help our clients,” says Mr. Smith. “It is like winning a motorcycle race, skiing a double black diamond run perfectly, or volunteering and serving a meal to the homeless only to see them smile and say, ‘thank you’ – it is the best feeling in the world.”