Monday, June 06, 2005


No more "Meet, greet and plead" in Florida's Broward County

Howard Finkelstein, head of the Public Defender's office in Broward County, Florida (Ft. Lauderdale), has thrown a monkey wrench into the court system. He's alerted Broward's state and local judges that his public defenders will advise against a guilty plea by any defendant at the time of arraignment (when charges are first presented to the court) unless the public defender has had adequate time to meet with the client.

The public undoubtedly thinks that's normal procedure, but they moved away from "normal procedure" decades ago in Broward County.

According to Dan Christensen of the Daily Business Review

Pleas at arraignment began to occur about 20 years ago in Broward in response to jail overcrowding and federal court mandates to reduce the number of inmates, said Chief Assistant Broward Public Defender Bob Wills. "What started as a system issue has snowballed into a case management issue," he said. "It shouldn't be that way."

It really should be viewed as what it is—unconstitutional.

... the desire of judges to move cases expeditiously is now at odds with the Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel. The first rule of the American Bar Association's model rules of professional conduct says "competent representation" requires "the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation."

Even the prosecutors agree—

Broward County State Attorney Michael Satz is backing Finkelstein. "We're supportive of anything that makes the criminal justice system better," said Satz spokesman Ron Ishoy. "The new public defender has identified a problem on the defense side and has set out to fix it. We'll do our part to help make it work."

"You can't give advice sufficient for your client to make an informed decision if you don't know what's in the background of your client or the case," said Randolph Braccialarghe, a Nova Southeastern University law professor and former Broward prosecutor.

How bad was it?

According to Finkelstein and his staff, about 80 percent of all criminal defendants -- and 40 percent of all accused felons -- plead guilty at arraignment in Broward. Many of them are represented by one of his 128 assistant public defenders.

"In the past, we did nothing until the time of arraignment, and that's 4 1/2 to six weeks after arrest," Finkelstein said. In that time, perishable evidence can be lost, witnesses can disappear and lives can fall apart. "You can lose your job, your apartment, even your family," he noted.

How did anyone with this much sense get elected?
In January, Finkelstein told his staff to contact any defendants who haven't gotten out of jail within 48 hours. He also created an early representation unit, and staffed it with three lawyers and four interviewers.

The second part of Finkelstein's initiative is to end the practice at arraignment of "meet, greet and plead." Typically, those deals help defendants get out of jail immediately but stain them with a felony conviction and set them up for consequences if they have future encounters with law enforcement.

"Pleading guilty is something that will be with clients forever because withholding adjudication or sealing records doesn't matter anymore in the computer age," Haughwout said. "So clients need to be aware of consequences and options, and lawyers can't advise them simply by looking at a [probable cause] sheet at arraignment."

This is a rare item of good news about Florida's courts. The Florida Republican legislature, with the encouragement and connivance of Jeb Bush, has been strangling the state court system in a manner similar to the efforts of their brethren in the Congress and White House.

The judges of course aren't concerned about justice but the size of their dockets—

... one Broward criminal court judge acknowledged that judges are concerned about the new policy. "Judges may be upset that their dockets will be clogged by cases that would otherwise be resolved at arraignment," said the judge, who did not want to be identified. "Everyone is concerned about their case numbers."

The judge also warned that the move could hurt Finkelstein's clients. "Prosecutors may say we aren't offering pleas at arraignment anymore," the judge said. "The people that would penalize are the clients. The best plea you get is at arraignment."

There's another way to clear the dockets. Convince the state and county to rescind laws that result in criminalizing citizens. Many of these trespasses are so commonly practiced, such as marijuana use, that conviction for a crime has become more a random stroke of bad luck than the implementation of justice.

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