Better late than never: Online access to court files arrives in South Florida

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org clerkpage

Nearly two decades after the federal courts did it, state courts in South Florida and across the Sunshine State have begun to allow the public online access to documents contained in case files.

Unlike the federal courts, however, local court clerks in South Florida and other areas aren’t charging any fees to view, print or download millions of available pages of public records.

The Broward Court Clerk’s office was among the first to go fully online last month with free public access to electronic felony, misdemeanor, traffic, and civil court records not sealed, expunged or otherwise deemed confidential by law or court order.

“They’re available for free except for dependency, juvenile, adoptions – you know, family cases,” said Clerk Howard Forman. There is also no remote access to document images in cases governed by Florida probate rules.

For now, all users must register and log in to view the docket and document images during a 90-day pilot project. Once the state courts sign off on Broward’s system users won’t have to register and may view court records anonymously.

Miami-Dade Clerk Harvey Ruvin put civil cases only online last month. He did not respond to requests for comment.

In Miami-Dade, the county commission, not the clerk, runs the criminal record system and criminal cases are not online. “The county commission is supposed to finance their felony operation and they haven’t done it yet,” said Forman.

Palm Beach County Court Clerk Sharon Bock announced last week that a $2.6 million budget shortfall would indefinitely delay the implementation of online remote access to court records there.

What’s happening is the culmination of an effort that began in 2004 to develop technology and policies the Florida Supreme Court determined were necessary to shield sensitive personal information – like Social Security and charge card numbers – from anonymous, yet prying online eyes.

Court dockets have appeared online for more than a decade. More recently, attorneys have been required to file court documents electronically instead of on paper. New rules were adopted to require lawyers and pro se filers to identify and protect confidential information in their pleadings. A list of 20 exemptions subject to automatic redaction by the court clerk was also adopted.

A TIERED ACCESS SYSTEM

Years of study also led to the establishment of a tiered system of access to court records “to facilitate appropriate, differentiated levels” for judges, court and clerks’ office staff, “user groups with specialized credentials” like law enforcement and attorneys and the general public.

In March 2014, the Supreme Court opened the door to posting court pleadings online in an administrative order that adopted the new “access security matrix” and established the pilot program that allows clerks in Florida’s 20 judicial circuits to apply for approval of their local access systems.

Court documents in Broward undergo a thorough redaction process before they’re put online, officials said. It begins with an automatic redaction done by a special software filtering that locates, and blacks out, forbidden information like Social Security numbers. There’s also a manual review by clerks and submission to an audit that looks for statistical anomalies that might signal that exempt information wasn’t caught.

“It’s working very well,” said Ernie Nardo, the Broward clerk’s chief information officer.

The Broward clerk’s case management system, Odyssey, is provided by Texas-based Tyler Technologies. It cost more than $1 million to implement and another $435,000 in annual licensing fees, Nardo said. Another $230,000 a year goes to license redaction software from Apoka-based Computing System Innovations.

The court’s sensitive case files are not on the cloud, but remain stored locally on servers owned by the Broward clerk’s office, Nardo said.

While all new filings are coming in electronically, Broward clerks are today “back-scanning” older paper felony case files. “Those cases linger longer so we are going back to convert entire cases to electronic,” Nardo said. He said 2012 felony cases are in the process of being scanned, meaning that every case from 2013 going forward is now electronic.

There are no plans to go back and scan in other old, closed cases because the cost is prohibitive. However, the Broward clerk is thinking about providing on-demand back-scanning of cases for those willing to pay for it. Any files scanned that way would also be added to the online record.

Another project under consideration would allow individuals, for a fee, to track activity in cases by registering to receive alerts.

In Broward, the clerk’s office is also working on making its website mobile friendly.

“We are developing our website to be compliant with any phone out there. So it won’t matter what our phone is when you hit our site it would resize itself to that device,” Nardo said

Sex offender convinces appeal court to reverse Broward judge

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach

Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach

Every day, state prisoners flood Florida’s courts with appeals and pleadings about their cases that they’ve written themselves. Those pro se filings – Latin for “on his own behalf” – rarely get far.

This spring, however, an inmate sex offender serving a life sentence convinced the Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach that a Broward judge erred when she failed to order prosecutors to explain potentially serious discrepancies about his Miranda rights warning form.

The state introduced the Miranda form as evidence at Charles D. Williams’ 1998 trial, but Williams contends the document was a fraud and that police forged his signature. For years, Williams and his family filed public records requests seeking to obtain a copy.

“After serving multiple requests to the Broward County Clerk and the State Attorney’s Office over a course of years, his brother finally obtained a copy of a Miranda waiver form,” says the unanimous order by a three-judge appeal panel. “The date on the form produced differed from the date on the form introduced at trial, and the signature on the form produced varied from the petitioner’s signature.”

The panel ordered Broward Circuit Judge Lisa Porter to require prosecutors and the clerk’s office to respond to the “factual issue of whether the form produced is the same as the form introduced at trial.” If the response doesn’t resolve the matter, Porter was instructed to “hold an evidentiary hearing.”

Imprisoned sex offender Charles D. Williams

Imprisoned sex offender Charles D. Williams

The court issued its mandate to Judge Porter on June 12 after denying a request for reconsideration by Florida Assistant Attorney General Richard Valtunas, who in previous court papers called Williams’ assertions “outlandish allegations of fraud and skullduggery.” The judge had not taken action as of Monday.

Williams, who next week turns 76, was a longtime Pompano Beach resident when Broward Sheriff’s detectives arrested him in 1996 on multiple counts of sexually battering or molesting his teenage stepdaughter. He was convicted after a three-day trial in March 1998. His conviction was upheld on appeal.

Starting in 2006, Williams and his family began filing public records requests for a copy of the Miranda waiver form presented by the state as evidence at his trial. After repeated visits and phone calls, Clerk Howard Forman’s office advised that it didn’t have the form in their file. Meanwhile, the State Attorney’s Office provided a copy, but Williams claims it wasn’t the same form the state used at trial and that the signature on it isn’t his signature.

Williams, housed at the Department of Correction’s South Florida Reception Center in Doral,  petitioned Broward Circuit civil Judge John Bowman in 2011 to compel the state to produce a “true” copy of his Miranda waiver form. He based his claim on the signature discrepancy and “trial testimony from a police officer in which the officer referred to the document as an ‘Affidavit of Conform’ and described the rights on the form differently than as written on the ‘Waiver of Counsel’ form provided by the State Attorney’s Office to his brother,” according to the appellate decision.

Bowman found Williams’ petition legally sufficient and transferred the matter to Porter in the criminal division, where it sat for three years until Porter denied it and entered an order prohibiting Williams from further pro se filings.

“Because the petition established a legally sufficient basis for relief, as determined by the civil court judge, the criminal court judge erred in denying the petition,” the appeal court’s decision says.

The tragic story of Josh Stein: A sick tortoise, an urge to help and a fatal trip through Broward’s Felony Mental Health Court

Josh Stein, a mentally troubled man of 38, died of an apparent accidental drug overdose the day after Christmas.  Broward’s elected public defender, Howard Finkelstein, says Stein’s death can be traced to anxiety and stress caused by “cattle car justice” meted out in Broward’s Felony Mental Health Court. In a letter last week to Chief Judge Peter Weinstein, Finkelstein chronicled Stein’s journey through the system after his burglary arrest in July 2013 for an ill advised taking, without permission, of a sickly red-footed tortoise that Stein wanted to nurse back to health. Finkelstein, who helped establish the specialized court to protect the mentally disabled in 2003, now says Felony Mental Health Court is a failure that must be shut down. 

Josh Stein

Josh Stein

Dear Chief Judge Weinstein,

Josh Stein is dead. A 38-year-old man has been forever silenced. His mother and father will never again see his smile, hear his laugh or hold and hug him. Their only son is lost forever. Now they are left with only pictures and memories.

He died a victim of Broward County’s Felony Mental Health Court’s callous, misguided treatment of the mentally ill. (more…)

Florida’s chief justice and the hunt for goof-off judges

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org

Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga

Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga

Florida’s chief justice has ordered the state’s 20 chief judges to monitor the work of each judge in their circuit looking for goof-offs – a move that’s unnerved judges in South Florida and elsewhere.

In the same Dec. 1 administrative order, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga directed each chief judge to “separately communicate” with each trial court judge in their circuit “the importance of a professional work ethic and accountability to the judiciary as a full-time commitment.”

“Neglect of duty” offenses “shall be reported by the chief judge to the chief justice of this court,” Labarga’s order says.

Labarga declined an interview request to discuss what prompted the order.

But Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters said, “The Chief Justice simply wants to make sure that the chief judges and the judges they supervise understand that there are consequences for violations of the public trust. We certainly realize that most of our judges honor their duties, but we feel it is a healthy thing to remind everyone of their ethical obligations.”

Broward, where judicial misbehavior has made national headlines and County Court Judge Gisele Pollack and Circuit Judge Laura Marie Watson are defending ethics charges brought against them by the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC), is among a number of circuits thought to have motivated Labarga’s order.

“The Supreme Court has to have a statewide perspective,” said Waters. “The people in the 18th Circuit (Brevard and Seminole counties) are convinced that the order is aimed at them.” Three judges from the 18th Circuit have disciplinary cases pending before the JQC.

Still, over the years Broward has had its fair share of concern about judges allegedly shirking their duty.

Larry Seidlin, the weepy probate judge who gained notoriety presiding over the high-profile Anna Nicole Smith case, had a reputation for paying more attention to his backhand than his caseload before his 2007 retirement. And this fall’s election included allegations that defeated incumbent Judge Stephen Feren was frequently absent from the courthouse.

Chief judges are elected to two-year terms by their fellow judges and serve as the administrative officer in their circuit, with supervisory authority over all judges and court personnel.

ENSURING ACCOUNTABILITY

The new administrative order obliges chiefs to ensure accountability by the judges they oversee.

“Until this order came out, the chief judge, at least in Broward, was largely a ceremonial title where you went to rubber chicken lunches and you cut ribbons at the courthouse,” said Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein. “I was told by at least four chief judges that whether a judge was intoxicated on the bench or was violating people’s rights by not following the law they had no authority to do anything…This order, as I read it, puts it clearly on the chief judges.”

Broward Chief Judge Peter Weinstein has the new, laborious chore of monitoring his colleagues’ work in the 17th Judicial Circuit. How will he do it?

“That’s an excellent question when you have 90 judges,” he said. “It’s hard to quantify a judge’s work.”

Weinstein said he hoped to get more specific direction from Labarga at the quarterly chief judges’ meeting at the Supreme Court today, Dec. 12.

“This will be discussed, and if it isn’t I will talk with Chief Justice Labarga personally to ask him, ‘What is it you actually want us to do?’” said Weinstein.

JAABBLOG, a courthouse blog written by attorney William Gelin, reported Tuesday that the chief justice’s administrative order may have been a response to a potential investigation of Broward’s judiciary by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The blog said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, confirmed that public hearings had been considered, but were obviated by Labarga’s order.

Simmons did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Waters, the high court’s spokesman, was asked whether Labarga was aware of the Senate’s concerns, and whether that prompted his order.

“We of course always have a dialogue going on with the Legislature and of course are open to whatever concerns they have,” said Waters, who declined further comment.

“Serious concerns” about court orders altered by BSO prompt Broward judges’ meeting

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Broward County Court Judges Sharon Zeller, right, and Ginger Lerner-Wren

Broward County Court Judges Sharon Zeller, right, and Ginger Lerner-Wren

Concerned that the sheriff’s office has altered the terms of misdemeanor probation orders without informing judges, Broward’s top county court judge has called a meeting of judges for next week to assess what’s happening.

“It is apparent that there is a practice of modifying the terms of probation without the knowledge or input of the judiciary,” Administrative Judge Sharon Zeller said in a recent memo to all criminal division judges that announced the Dec. 10 meeting.

“This raises serious concerns: the legality of probation, with probation, instead of the court, determining the terms of probation; modifying terms of probation without knowledge of the court, and enforcement.”

No law or administrative order of the Broward court authorizes the Broward Sheriff’s Office to engage in the little-known practice of unilaterally changing court-ordered reporting requirements to reduce how often defendants must report in person to a probation officer.

Florida Statute 948.03 gives judges the sole authority to “determine the terms and conditions of probation.”

As BrowardBulldog.org reported last month, Broward County Court Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren discovered what BSO was doing in early October while questioning a defendant. She quickly found that dozens of her probation orders had been changed, and prohibited the practice in her courtroom, calling it “outside the law” and “not in the interest of public safety.”

A probation officer later told the judge in open court, “This is occurring in order to alleviate workforce shortages or pressures.”

In an interview, Judge Zeller said that an attorney for the circuit court, Alexandra Rieman, has researched the matter and “believes that Judge Lerner-Wren is correct.” Zeller said a new administrative order of the court might be needed to address the problem.

“It seems easily solvable,” Zeller said.

DOSAGE PROBATION

BSO Community Programs Director David Scharf, who oversees probation, said in an interview that BSO adopted the practice as policy about 2009, but he declined several requests over the past month to make public a copy of that policy.

The practice, known as “dosage probation,” is based on what Scharf said are “evidence-based” risk assessments of probationers to determine how many doses, or times, a probationer must report in person to an officer. He cited language in standard misdemeanor probation order forms that he said authorizes probation officers to modify conditions imposed by a judge. The form tells defendants that “each month you will make a full and truthful report in person to your probation officer, unless otherwise directed by your probation officer.”

Thousands of misdemeanor defendants are adjudicated guilty every year and many are sentenced to varying terms of probation. Asked how many times BSO changed court-ordered reporting requirements for misdemeanor defendants last year, Scharf declined to answer.

Judge Zeller said she does not plan to ask BSO to provide such an accounting, but said individual judges may do so.

Probationers instructed not to report are nevertheless required to pay BSO the full cost of supervision, a monthly fee of $75.

Take the case of Christopher Thurlow, a Fort Lauderdale man found guilty last April of battery and sentenced to “make a full and truthful report in person to your probation officer” once a month for 12 months. A standard special condition of probation required him to pay the full cost of his supervision, $900, at a rate of $75 a month.

Court and BSO records show BSO later deemed Thurlow a medium risk, placing him on what’s known as Level 2 supervision. Level 2 offenders are told to report in person every other month – or six times a year. In the months they aren’t required to show up for an in-person assessment, they mail in a form with several questions including, “Have you used alcohol excessively or any controlled substances this month?”

No matter how often he reports in person, however, BSO still requires Thurlow to pay the full $900 for 12 months of reporting supervision. “Probationers do pay monthly costs of supervision regardless of their report in status,” BSO spokeswoman Keyla Concepcion explained.

BIG MONEY IN SUPERVISION

Misdemeanor probation supervision fees represent a significant sum for BSO. During the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, BSO supervised 12,500 misdemeanor probationers and collected $2.8 million in such fees, according to information provided by BSO.

BSO’s probation workload is crushing. Last year, BSO employed just 31 probation specialists to handle the onslaught of probationers.

The State Attorney’s Office has taken a wait-and-see approach, with a spokesman indicating sympathy for Judge Lerner-Wren’s concerns, but saying it’s “not directly our fight.”

In a Nov. 18 memo about the matter to her fellow judges, Judge Lerner-Wren mentioned receiving a call from Sheriff Scott Israel days after BrowardBulldog.org reported the story.

He “wanted to say he was 95 percent in agreement. He also stated he only wants to work with the judges and his office will gladly comply with whatever a judge wants for his or her division,” said Lerner-Wren.

Lerner-Wren, who declined to be interviewed about her conversation with the sheriff, also cited “pertinent” Florida law, including the Separation of Powers provision of the Florida Constitution.

“It seems logical to conclude that unless county criminal division judges transmit a directive to BSO to curtail the systemic practice of changing sentencing orders of probation without court notification or court approval, this practice will continue,” she wrote.

BSO’s practice of altering probation terms could also run afoul of another constitutional provision which expressly grants victims of crime “the right to be informed, to be present, and to be heard when relevant, at all stages of criminal proceedings.”

In Thurlow’s case, for example, the battery victim was not informed about a Nov. 13 hearing at which his terms of probation were discussed, according to a transcript of the proceedings.

Broward’s criminal justice system failing mentally ill, too costly

Broward Chief Judge Peter Weinstein, left, and Public Defender Howard Finkelstein

Broward Chief Judge Peter Weinstein, left, and Public Defender Howard Finkelstein

Editors Note:
Last month, BrowardBulldog.org  published the story of Broward’s “Forgotten Soldier” – a mentally ill ex-Marine in his late fifties whose journey through the county’s long broken mental health system was marred by illegal confinement and a lack of appropriate care.

The compelling story of the Forgotten Soldier was written by Owen McNamee and Douglas Brawley, two assistant public defenders who represent him. Last week, their boss, elected Broward Public Defender wrote to Broward Chief Judge Peter Weinstein to compare the treatment of the mentally ill by the criminal justice systems of Broward and Miami-Dade. Finkelstein concluded that Broward’s mental health system is backwards, cruel and unnecessarily costly.

“We need to get back on track and Miami-Dade has provided a successful model to follow,” Finkelstein said. Here is Finkelstein’s November 19 letter to Weinstein: (more…)

BSO quietly changes court’s probation orders; Broward judge blows the whistle

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Broward County Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren, left, and David Scharf, director of community programs for the Broward Sheriff's Office

Broward County Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren, left, and David Scharf, director of community programs for the Broward Sheriff’s Office

Fort Lauderdale resident Christopher Wayne Thurlow was adjudged guilty last April of misdemeanor battery and violating a restraining order. His sentence: 12 months of reporting probation – that is, to appear personally once a month before a probation officer.

But that’s not what happened.

Without informing the court, the Broward Sheriff’s Probation Office changed Thurlow’s court-ordered reporting requirement to once every two months.

Broward County Court Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren, who signed Thurlow’s probation order, chanced to find out October 2 when Thurlow appeared in her courtroom again for arraignment on new charges of resisting arrest without violence and a related criminal traffic charge.

“I asked (the prosecutor) to contact probation, as I knew defendant was currently on probation. The defendant indicated to the court that he was told he did not have to report,” Lerner-Wren told Chief Judge Peter Weinstein in a memo the next day.

At a hearing, Judge Lerner-Wren soon learned from a probation officer that BSO had similarly modified other probation orders without her knowledge.

“This is being done with no court order or other known administrative authority,” she wrote.

Lerner-Wren signed an order banning the practice in her courtroom, calling it “outside of the law” and “not in the interest of public safety.” Her memo adds that Charmin Gilbert, the probation officer, stated “this is occurring in order to alleviate workforce shortages or pressures.”

Since then, Lerner-Wren has informed the court’s top administrative judges by memo that she’s identified dozens of similar cases in her court culled from a list of 125 pending court-ordered probation cases compiled by the probation office.

NUMEROUS PROBATION ORDERS MODIFIED BY BSO

“The majority appear to have been modified, changed or altered without court notification, opportunity for court review and without court approval,” she wrote in an Oct. 29 memo obtained by BrowardBulldog.org. “The practice seems to have emerged as early as 2010, with the pattern apparently being systemized in 2014.”

Lerner-Wren, a veteran member of Broward’s bench, declined comment. But in her Oct. 29 memo she expressed concern about BSO’s actions.

“In my view, this situation raises a number of serious legal issues, particularly as to the integrity of court process, legal enforcement of sentencing orders by the court and potential public safety issues,” she said.

The memo indicates particular concern that BSO Probation’s actions violate the rights of victims of violent crimes.

“It is unknown how many modified cases involve a victim and/or are violence related,” she said. “In my view, this raises constitutional issues relating to the legal question of whether or not victims had a right to be notified and be heard pertaining to a change in post-conviction sentencing.”

County Court administrative Judge Sharon Zeller and Criminal Division chairwoman Judge Mary Rudd Robinson did not respond to requests for comment over several days. Chief Judge Weinstein is on vacation.

Ron Ishoy, a spokesman for State Attorney Michael Satz, said his office is aware of the matter and has been in contact about it with BSO officials.

“It’s not directly our fight (but) we certainly understand Judge Lerner-Wren’s concern and we’ll continue to monitor it,” Ishoy said.

Florida Statute 948.03 gives judges the sole authority to “determine the terms and conditions of probation.”

BSO: NO REAL PROBLEM

But David Scharf, who oversees probation as BSO’s director of community programs, indicated in an interview that his office has modified the terms of court-ordered probation in each of Broward County’s misdemeanor criminal courts because it is standard BSO policy. If so, hundreds or perhaps thousands of cases could be affected.

Scharf added that while he’s aware of judicial concerns about possible illegality, he sees no actual problem.

“Our practice is not contrary to any court order,” he said, citing standard language in misdemeanor probation orders that he says authorizes probation officers to modify conditions imposed by a judge.

That language on forms defendants sign says, “Each month you will make a full and truthful report in person to your probation officer, unless otherwise directed by your probation officer.”

Scharf explained that the practice, known as “dosage probation,” is rooted in what’s known as “evidence-based decision making” that involves the use of “objective risk assessment” criteria to assess whether a probationer is high, medium or low risk. BSO, without court input, then determines how many doses, or times, someone on probation must physically report to an officer.

“We as an agency are committed to public safety. The claim that we are compromising public safety we refute tremendously,” Scharf said. “Our successful completion rates are up.”

Scharf said he does not understand why Judge Lerner-Wren was not aware of BSO Probation’s policy because dosage has been part of BSO policy since about 2009.

“I don’t know what she doesn’t know,” said Scharf, who did not produce a copy of the policy despite several requests. “We have probation officers in court and have for many years. There’s never been a question or an issue about how we operated.”

He said BSO is currently developing a response to the court.

“We’re ready to work with the judiciary and formulate a plan, and if they want more discretion in how they are handling things we certainly are willing to do that – with the caveat that what we are doing is working,” said Scharf.

Meanwhile, Judge Lerner-Wren has informed judicial higher-ups of her plans to schedule “review hearings of all cases identified by BSO Probation to reaffirm court orders, hear input from the parties and evaluate the need for further court action.

“I wanted to share this new information in order that my colleagues may consider what steps, if any, to take in their respective criminal divisions,” she said.

Broward PD Finkelstein says bond court judge Hurley must go; Chief judge says no

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Broward County Court Judge John "Jay" Hurley Photo: NBC6 Miami

Broward County Court Judge John “Jay” Hurley Photo: NBC6 Miami

John “Jay” Hurley, a Broward County judge who’s gained a measure of online celebrity for his brand of televised justice, will keep his post in bond court despite a call for his removal by Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein.

Finkelstein complained to Chief Judge Peter M. Weinstein last week in a letter that Hurley should be booted out of magistrate court for “expressing his contempt for the homeless and members of my office.”

Saying Hurley “has crossed the line,” Finkelstein asked Weinstein to transfer him in a letter recounting five incidents from October 7-15. DVD recordings that Finkelstein said depict “Judge Hurley’s rash and troubling behavior” accompanied the four-page letter.

“Each DVD shows Judge Hurley over-reacting, abusing his judicial authority and acting in a manner unbecoming a judicial officer,” Finkelstein wrote. “His behavior is clearly intended to bully and intimidate the attorneys and prevent them from effectively representing detainees.”

But in a Sunday telephone interview, Weinstein rejected Finkelstein’s request.

“Jay Hurley is doing a fine job. He’s a good judge. It’s a tough assignment and there are all kinds of issues, but there are no plans for him to move,” said Weinstein, who has served as chief judge since 2011.

Specifically, Finkelstein accused Hurley of chastising one public defender, threatening two others with contempt and twice having Chief Assistant Public Defender Nadine Girault Levy thrown out of court for seeking to assist homeless persons charged with violating municipal ordinances.

“On one occasion he actually pressed the panic button to stop her from making legal argument,” Finkelstein told Weinstein. “In an attempt to humiliate Girault Levy, Judge Hurley then ordered her to remain in the courtroom until deputies arrive[d] so she could be escorted from the courtroom by armed deputies.”

Hurley declined comment Friday through his secretary.

The web site CourtChatter.tv streams live video from Broward’s bond court and other locations. In June, Miami’s NBC 6 reported that Hurley has a daily following “on computer screens across the nation.” Site owner Cathy Russon told the station, “Judge Hurley popped into our chat room the other night, and oh my God, it’s like a celebrity that is better than George Clooney.”

Finkelstein, widely known locally as TV legal advice maven “Help Me Howard,” said the judge’s actions followed challenges by public defenders to Hurley’s “refusal to appoint counsel to homeless persons” charged with violating city ordinances.

Florida’s court operations are funded by the state, except for criminal violations of city ordinances. If a police officer arrests an indigent for a municipal infraction, the city must pay for a defense lawyer.

But city paid defense lawyers, like city prosecutors, typically don’t appear at bond hearings due to cost considerations. They only show up after the case proceeds to court.

Public defenders are state-funded and do not handle municipal cases. Yet they are always present at magistrate hearings and are permitted by law to counsel indigent defendants and ensure they get the rights to which they are entitled.

And that’s the rub. Indigents accused of minor city violations are, in what Finkelstein said in an interview is Hurley’s encouragement; often plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of a few days or time served.

“He is more focused on quickly moving through the docket than ensuring that defendants understand the process,” Finkelstein said in his letter.

Hurley’s refusal to appoint a lawyer to defend homeless persons arrested for municipal violations is allegedly personal.

In his letter, Finkelstein told Chief Judge Weinstein that at an Oct. 14 hearing Hurley went into a 10 minute “impromptu tirade” in which he “interjected his personal feelings into the proceedings and admitted that his wife and family had been approached by the homeless while in their car in traffic. He attempted to minimize his comments by characterizing them as ‘venting’ and repeatedly emphasized his compassion for homeless people while he continued to complain about being harassed by the homeless.”

Finkelstein also cited Hurley’s handling of defendant Gregory Williams at an Oct. 8 bond hearing. Via video proceedings, Williams told the judge that he was deaf and did not use sign language, but did read lips.

“Judge Hurley completely ignored (Chief Assistant PD) Girault Levy’s request to appoint counsel to Williams and to transport Williams to the courtroom so he could read the court’s lips and understand the hearing,” Finkelstein wrote.

Instead, Hurley accepted a no contest plea from Williams over video.

“Judge Hurley relied on a detention deputy to “translate.” It is apparent that Williams did not understand what was said and only wished to be released from custody, Finkelstein told the chief judge. “Judge Hurley denied Williams due process of law and failed to accommodate his disability in order to expedite and extricate a plea.”

Weinstein, while declaring his support for Hurley, acknowledged the court has “issues with how we deal with municipal ordinance violations” and said he’s taking steps to address them.

“We are in the process of working on a new administrative order to make things a lot clearer,” Weinstein said. He said the changes should be implemented by the end of the year.

Broward continues to fail its mentally ill; The sad case of Broward’s ‘Forgotten Soldier’

By Owen McNamee and Douglas Brawley 
Special to BrowardBulldog.org 

South Florida State Hospital in Pembroke Pines.

South Florida State Hospital in Pembroke Pines.

Editor’s Note: Owen McNamee heads the mental health division of the Broward Public Defender’s Office. Douglas Brawley is an assistant Broward public defender and attorney for the Forgotten Soldier.

Twenty years ago eighteen members of a Broward Grand Jury issued a scathing report that concluded the county’s mental health system was under-financed, fragmented and leaderless. They found the system was failing thousands of mentally ill and disabled persons and causing hundreds to wind up in jail or endure forced hospitalizations without needed treatment.

Twenty years later, we are still failing this vulnerable population. (more…)

Broward courts use fees to prevent sun from shining on judicial records; a $132,000 demand

By Alison Fitzgerald, Center for Public Integrity 

Rendering of the new Broward courthouse now under construction.

Rendering of the new Broward courthouse now under construction.

When the Center for Public Integrity last summer requested records from Florida’s 17th judicial circuit regarding the procedures and policies surrounding foreclosure cases, officials were more than happy to comply — for a price.

A price of $132,348, to be exact. (more…)

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