Yesterday in Boston, Judge Richard Sinnott had defense lawyer Susan Churcharrested and removed from a courtroom as she tried to read case law relevant to her client’s case. This is wildly inappropriate behavior from the judiciary in any circumstance. Even though the judge released her, several hours later, without pursuing contempt charges, the intent and possible effect of threatening to jail a lawyer for doing his or her job is to discourage lawyers from advocating for their clients. The judge told her her didn’t her to turn the hearing “into theater”, then proceeded to perform the great theater of having her taken into custody. Said Church, “[I] sat there wondering if I was going to jail that night, whether I’d be able to see my children at dinner that night, what I was going to do about my work and my clients.” She continued, “My biggest concern is that this doesn’t have a chilling effect for all the other lawyers out there who are fighting the good fight,” via BostonGlobe.com.
The backstory is that Judge Sinnott was already feeling the heat by going against the prosecutor’s decision not to file charges, and refusing to dismiss this and several other cases the prosecution had already decided were not appropriate to be prosecuted related to protesters against the white supremacist “Straight Pride Parade” in Boston last week. So, when Church was citing case law, she was specifically pointing out the legal authority that said the judge had acted illegally in refusing to dismiss the case. Instead of listening to the legal precedent, he had Ms. Church removed. He didn’t like being told what he was doing was wrong, and he responded by arresting the messenger, who bravely persisted in doing her job in the face of threats to advocate for her client.
Since that episode in court, the prosecutor has filed an emergency petition with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to overturn Sinnott’s ruling. DA Rachel Rollins argued that the judge, “ignored the clear and unambiguous constraints placed on the judiciary by the separation of powers.” Church cited a 1991 Supreme Judicial Court case for exactly that proposition. It sounds like the case law will require the decision to be reversed, and the Judge may face discipline for his encounter with Ms. Church. Susan Church is a hero.
Former NFL player Kellen Winslow is on trial in California for a dozen charges related to alleged sexual assaults, lewd conduct, and indecent exposure: he faces up to life in prison. The first of five accusers testified yesterday, and it did not go well for the prosecution. The victim’s credibility was attacked thoroughly on the stand: her testimony was “shaking and baffling” according to USA Today and she was “caught in a web of lies and contradiction” according to Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel. Wetzel reports that her story changed while she was on the stand, contradicted her prior testimony, and only her word can overcome Winslow’s claim that the encounter was consensual. The state has four more alleged victims with several different claims. It will be hard for Winslow to overcome that many allegations presented to the same jury, but the outcome is far from a forgone conclusion.
Don’t forget, it is still a crime to possess marijuana or anything marijuana related in the State of Florida. New Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried announced yesterday she is going to name a cannabis director to oversee issues related to medical marijuana, agricultural hemp and marijuana edibles. I’m sharing this not just to highlight her efforts to improve the regulatory system for Floridians, which we support, but to remind everyone that it is still a crime to possess marijuana without that card. Even a little bit of marijuana is a crime, even a pipe is a crime, and any amount of oil containing THC is a felony. Conviction for any drug offense also carries a mandatory driver’s license suspension.
The fact that Florida has medical marijuana does not mean that it’s OK to carry around some weed. The laws are still being enforced, and sometimes aggressively. If you do get caught, contact your attorney right away!
Criminal justice reform has been a growing topic of late, and has been garnering more and more support from both sides of the aisle. Recently, even President Trump has signaled his support for such reform. It makes sense from a lot of standpoints: more efficient justice, less recidivism and less expense, while reuniting families: especially those separated by excessively long prison sentences for non-violent offenses. The growing movement has finally gained enough steam that the Senate appears poised to vote on a justice-bill, albeit a ‘slimmed-down’ version, before the end of the year. This is a good thing, though as the name of the bill, the “First Step Act”, implies, it should be merely the beginning of positive reforms.
Bar President Michelle Suskauer
Florida also has a need for criminal justice reform. Florida has a very draconian sentencing structure, in many cases imposing decades-long mandatory minimum sentences on non-violent offenses that far exceed the federal sentences that are being reconsidered. Florida Bar President Michelle Suskauer, who has spent many years in the justice system as a defense attorney and is acutely aware of the issues has made a push for consideration of the issue to raise awareness. The Florida Bar recently held a Criminal Justice summit to discuss the issue (the Bar cannot take a position), and Suskauer wrote an informative update in an OpEd published in the News-Press this week, and elsewhere. You should definitely check out her more detailed article, here.
Yesterday was the funeral for convicted gangster James “Whitey”. Bulger, a notorious leader in Boston area organized crime gained even more notoriety when he hid out for decades while sitting atop the most wanted lists. When they finally caught up to him, Bulger claimed immunity from prosecution as he had been cooperating with government investigators. That defense didn’t work, and Bulger was sent away to prison. He was murdered last week the very day he was transferred to a new facility, bringing to a close a dark chapter in Boston history.
Bulger was played by Johnny Depp in the biopic “Black Mass”, and influenced other stories, such as Martin Scorsese’s award-winning “The Departed”.
We previously covered the story of former Miss Hialeah and Miss Miami Lakes, Vanessa Barcelo. Barcelo was initially arrested for aggravated battery for threatening a man who refused to leave her party after causing a serious disturbance. The state determined that she did not strike anyone with the bat, but proceeded a misdemeanor battery charges as Ms. Barcelo slapped the man at the end of the altercation. After a 9-hour hearing, the court found that the man’s refusal to leave, and since he had taken the bat, meant her fear was justified, and dismissed the case under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.
Now Barcelo is suing the cop and the Hialeah Police Department for the arrest, and for propagating the story that she beat hit the guy with a bat. While police are generally immune from suits, this suit alleges that the officer was grossly negligent, and relies on language in the stand your ground statute that compels police to investigate and determine whether there was justification for the force used. Working against the civil defendants is that Barcelo indicates the officer would not even take a statement from her, there were multiple witnesses who stated she had not struck him with the bat, and the alleged victim was drunk, and initiated the incident when he refused to leave her house when it appeared had had attempted to assault her cousin.
One of the less discussed aspects of the stand your ground law is that it is supposed to help prevent charges like the ones on Ms. Barcelo. It is explicit that officers are supposed to do a little more digging, and to be very sure that force was necessary before they make any arrests. They could be in trouble here, in light of the facts and the sloppy investigation. This is one of the rare circumstances where the cop and the police force may face consequences for their wrongful arrest.
Amira Fox won the Republican primary in the race for State Attorney for the 20th Judicial Circuit. That effectively means she will win the seat. This is a relief for everyone working in the criminal justice system in Southwest Florida, as things tend to run pretty well at the State here, and the kind of wholesale changes her opponent planned could have started chaos in our justice system. Ms. Fox was clearly the best candidate, and has the smarts and experience to do the job well.
I hope that when Ms. Fox takes over, she does look to improve some of the things about the State Attorney’s office: it would be nice to see more consistency from county to county, a reduction in jail time for non-violent crimes, especially misdemeanors like marijuana possession, and being willing to admit when a case is bad. Generally, the office has been pretty well run since Ms. Fox took over as chief assistant, and it probably will continue to be so. Ms. Fox ran a good, honest campaign and did not stoop to the dishonesty and mudslinging of her opponent. Hopefully this will show that races can be won the right way, by the best candidate. I wish her luck.