Howard Finkelstein: Broward’s cities, courts deny legal rights to poor and homeless

By Dan Christensen,

Howard Finkelstein

Accusing Broward’s courts of failing to protect the civil rights of the poor and homeless, Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein has asked Chief Judge Victor Tobin to “instruct the judiciary” to make sure that indigents arrested for violating municipal ordinances have lawyers.

In a Jan. 6 letter, Finkelstein accused the courts of allowing Broward’s cash-strapped cities to “systematically” ignore their legal obligation to pay for defense lawyers to represent poor people arrested for minor city crimes like panhandling or carrying an open can of beer.

“Both entities are responsible for the denial of due process and the prolonged incarceration” of those accused, said Finkelstein. He urged immediate action by the courts to prevent a potentially costly class-action lawsuit.

“If the cities do not fulfill their legal and moral obligation, the courts should dismiss every case presented,” he said. “If our cities wish to use the system, they need to pay. Otherwise, they need to stop arresting poor homeless people.”

Cities adopt and enforce such ordinances to promote the “quality of life” for residents in public places.

Finkelstein’s office has not represented indigent defendants arrested for municipal violations since the Legislature changed the way such services are paid for by the state several years ago. Instead, cities are responsible for appointing a municipal defender.

The Public Defender’s Office estimates that as many as 50 indigent defendants accused of municipal crimes come before Broward judges every week.

Court rules in Florida require the appointment to occur on or before a defendant’s first appearance in front of a judge. But Finkelstein says that’s not happening and that defendants often plead guilty to a deal that gets them out of jail based on time they’ve already served.

“There has never been an appearance by any city public defender on behalf of these defendants at magistrate court,” said Finkelstein, who is best known locally as “Help Me Howard” on Channel 7. “These defendants are accepting pleas without consulting an attorney even though the nature of the charges suggests many of them may suffer from mental illness.”

In an interview Monday, Judge Tobin said Finkelstein’s letter is the first he’s heard about a lack of representation for indigent representation in municipal cases.

“I was under the general impression that a great many cities had either stopped arresting for municipal ordinance violations or were using a similar state statute, or had pooled together or made some arrangement with John Fry,” Tobin said.

Fry said several cities, including Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood, had paid him on a non-contract basis to handle such cases. He said there was no process by which cases were assigned and that judges would appoint him if an indigent defendant requested an attorney, or a concerned public defender tipped him to a defendant who needed help.

“It was case by case,” said Fry, who was sworn in Monday as a Broward County Court judge. His defense duties have been handed to Fort Lauderdale lawyer Steven Schaet.

But some defendants fell through the cracks.

Finkelstein’s letter cites the example of Benigno Fernandez who was arrested by Hollywood police on Nov. 30 on a charge of “soliciting a charitable donation without a permit.”

Benigno Fernandez

Fernandez didn’t show for his arraignment, and a judge issued a warrant with a $150 bond. He was picked up Dec. 29 and spent eight nights in jail until a judge released him – shortly after Finkelstein’s letter.

Before that Chief Assistant Public Defender Lynn DeSanti contacted an attorney for the city of Hollywood about Fernandez’s plight.

Finkelstein said the attorney “did not know who the city’s public defender was and seemed unconcerned about Mr. Fernandez’s incarceration. She advised Ms. DeSanti that, if she was so concerned, she could arrange to have him placed on the docket herself.”

He termed the city’s response “both outrageous and illegal.” City Attorney Jeffrey Sheffel did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2009, Fernandez spent 39 days in jail without the benefit of a lawyer on a Hollywood charge of carrying an open container of alcohol. He was later adjudicated guilty and sentenced to time served.

“The court did nothing to protect Mr. Fernandez or sanction the City of Hollywood. It simply looked the other way,” Finkelstein wrote.

The letter also informed Judge Tobin that Broward’s cities are not, as required by state law, paying the cost of housing nonviolent municipal offenders they feed into the jail system.

Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti said Finkelstein is correct, “They’re not paying.”

The sheriff said it now costs the county $113 a day to keep municipal offenders in jail. The tab for Fernandez’s recent eight days in jail was $904; in 2009, it was over $4,000.

Lamberti said the burden on the county is significantly less than a few years ago. He credited a push several years ago to lower the jail population that led to the release of hundreds of municipal defendants.

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  • I think what Mr.finklestein(help me out Howard) is right on here. with all these homeless people down here its a huge proplem not only for the courts but for the City as well. Where is the County in all of this??. The Broward County Comm. see’s these people across the street from them on any given day. My suggestion is have a feeding site at the City Police station. They no longer use their City jail that was located here. Have the Church’s use the police kitchen etc. and have Social Service agencies provide guidance to them. Its only a temporary fix. Teach them how to fish, so to speak and they will eat forever. to just ignore the proplem is a serious mistake. police station is the answer. Police chief against it because he would have to staff it. he will have to staff it regardless. besides the Criminal element would shy away because of the location. Perfect fit.And its downtown(no lawsuits becaus eits not downtown).

  • what about a single mother that doesnt have much money and has an ex husband who is wanting to sue the mother for full custody …dont single mothers who dont have money for representation have the right to an attorney or do just criminals have the right…why is it that thr mother as no right to defend herself just because they dont have thousands of dollars to spend like the ego tripping ex husband with all the cash that is an abuser….please howard help me…..i hav left a msg on your hotline and desperate for representation and justice needs to be served…the courts will not appoint an attorney and all agencys cannot help…i have tried EVERYTHING…please help me and my 5yr old daughter….she needs her mom and i need her…she is my everything

  • to: buldog editor / br. def. howard fink–

    Verifying these fellow-Americans’ daily-evils for 30 years might entice you to invite Al Qaeda for lunch, vacation in North Korea and apologize to Hitler. Namely, with ‘co-patriots’ like these 24/7 internal terrori$ts – enemies start to look rather charming. The following are only 2 current crimes-in-progress out of a 30-year dense slew.

    Crime #1: FIFTH Foreclosure Fraud in the last FIVE years + priors for decades. Check #193 of $1,157.86 marked “100% extortion” delivered on 7-29-13 (extortion due-date) to Miami-Dade’s THIRD Cuban Mayor’s discretion in dealing with the Cuban shyster and maFiami Cuban manager following the two other Cuban mayors’ enabling of previous extortions. FORTH extortion caused by Cuban M-DPS boss, and 12-19-12 bank payment botched by 4 Cuban bankers and the shyster’s Cuban clerk – ashaming Alpha-66 & other 1st generation plus some younger superb Miami-Cubans.
    The scheme Corrupt HOA destroys or conceals (in case of a FlaSta ‘Right to inspect’) the victim’s full-timely payments received by management for the duration defined by Law as ‘Delinquency’ which qualifies for the obtaining of a Lien towards a frivolous filing of a malicious Litigation. Voila! – a child-play, especially if he was born in the Medicare-fraud capital. To ensure the full effect of the evil scheme – über neighbors refused to enclose the unter victim’s checks with theirs (see: MDC FIU M-DPS Tax-paid tax thieves), the victim’s character was assassinated to officials receiving his secured payments, banks cooperated with the shyster’s instruction to block payments, online-paying was banned by lame technical excuses, USPS-Certified was excused by ‘We received his letter but there was no check inside’. Care to try it for ONE month? – a year? How about THREE DECADES non-stop!!
    Monday 7-29-13: extortion due-date Exhibit A: shyster/maFiami-management/corrupt-HOA’s 6-14-13 ‘Final Notice’ in demand of $1,157.86 is fraudulent by [a] Their full knowledge of the victim’s zero-balance through Aug. 2013 by 2 checks of $300 each (monthly dues are $75) pre-paid in Dec.2012, one – entrusted to judge Herbert Klein and the other hand-delivered to Congregation Bet Breira; [b] The term ‘Final Notice’ is deliberate to misrepresent this INITIAL-FIRST as ‘last resort’, portraying extortionists as martyrs who tolerated the victim’s – supposed – failure to respond to 1st, 2nd and other notices leaving them no choice but to litigate for which they ‘deserve’ a favorable ruling – as in all hereunto 30-years cases. THE HEREIN IS A SWIFT RESPONSE TO THEIR FIRST-INITIAL NOTE. [c] In the strictly hypothetical case of 6 months debt, the actual amount would be $600 rather than the unexplained ~200% inflated demand which includes so-called ‘Penalties’ that they dare not mention since they were never ruled legally according to Fla Sta., as all other mockeries of Law like forged signatures, false statements, favored bids, kickbacks, bribery, etc. [d] The obvious absence of a monthly breakdown aimed to conceal their full knowledge of ‘a’ above; [e] The Scheme succeeds at ABA’s collaboration of ensuring shysters’ winning by depriving the victim off Const.Equal Protection while falsely advertising PSB and L-S.

    Crime #2: Vandalism-with-intent-to-kill under the disguise of a hurricane
    Exhibit A: Monstrous brittle Poinciana dwarfing a modest townhouse ready to crash it on its targeted-victim at the slightest hurricane gust, stands in contrast with the rest of the HOA grounds manicured to hurricane-safety perfection. (When a less schooled highly moral Mexican-landscaper challenged the sheep-skinned hyena-directors “Why the discrimination of taxation-with-no-representation against the old professor?” – he was fired on the spot).
    The scheme Consistent Criminal Negligence causes trees to reach enormousss heights posing a threat to surrounding structures, used as an implicit weapon of intimidation against those who expose the board’s corruption. In 1992, Andrew destroyed the targeted victim’s roof; 2005-Wilma destroyed the targeted-victim’s 2 vehicles – all at the pre & post knowledge of the 2 Cuban mayors and the HOA’s ABA-certified lawyers.
    Bigotry is never logical: board-darlings as resident cops and firemen fail to see how their applauding of Criminal Negligence may risk their camarades’ lives when they will have to come and pluck the aging professor out of the ruins.
    Operationally speaking (a) Beware of the corrupt HOA’s Poodle-martyr appearance (i.e.: ‘We do not get paid for serving on the board’ – ye right! ‘Just between you and me’ – the chummy kind of hashed character-assassination that has kept them in business for 3 decades); (b) All that is left to a victim of 30-year daily hell is dignity & privacy: please, no doorbell, street or over-the-fence chat. For academic integrity’s sake, please restrict all communications to written-mail as the enormous signed-stamped-recorded pile of County / Appeals / Supreme courts’ documentation establishes the foundation for this case-study; (c) For further privacy, please restrict cam shots to Poinciana-evidence but nothing personal like car-tag, person, face; (d) finally, this is not a 1/2-pregnancy test, “Yes, but..”, political rally or Nuremberg-innocense ala ich bin nicht chuldig, ich wusste nicht, ich habe nicht gesehen, ich trug bestellungen — rather, top intelligence / highest morals / deepest compassion / straightest spine / toughest guts.
    Thanks, the ball (or 2) – in your field.
    Signed: The (n)ever-learning professor 7-27-13

  • These same rights are being misused in the dependency system as well. Parents who can’t afford proper legal representation are losing their children at an alarming rate. This issue of abuse of discretion in all these areas needs to be looked into.

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