By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
Jonathan Bleiweiss, the Oakland Park-based Broward sheriff’s deputy turned convict turned self-styled crusader for justice, is running out of moves to avoid more prison time.
Last month an appeals court upheld a Broward County judge’s ruling that Bleiweiss violated the terms of his probation. Prosecutors say this means the judge could sentence him to life in prison.
Broward Circuit Judge Marina Garcia-Wood will soon schedule a hearing on what’s next for the 42-year-old Bleiweiss.
From prosecutors’ standpoint, a long stretch behind bars would finally address a serious wrong. Victims and other witnesses said that while in uniform Bleiweiss stalked, terrorized and coerced his targets, undocumented male immigrants, into performing demeaning sex acts.
In 2009 Bleiweiss was charged with multiple sexual batteries. But he was able to strike a favorable plea deal after almost all the victims were deported and, therefore, silenced, prosecutors say in court documents. Other witnesses refused to come forward and confront him out of fear of reprisal.
JUSTICE CENTER IS IN EX-DEPUTY’S DISTRICT
Bleiweiss pleaded no contest to more than a dozen false imprisonment and other non-sexual offenses and served three years and nine months of a five-year sentence at a minimum-security prison. He wasn’t ordered to register as a sex offender.
Prosecutors won’t comment about the ongoing case. But they’re not alone in their opinion of Bleiweiss.
“He’s a bad cop who should have nothing to do with justice,” former public defender Howard Finkelstein said in 2019. That’s when Bleiweiss, fresh out of prison, opened his nonprofit Florida Justice Center in Oakland Park, the district Bleiweiss patrolled as a Broward Sheriff’s Office deputy.
Bleiweiss told Florida Bulldog in a November 2019 interview that he’s innocent, his prison experience opened his eyes to racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and he wants to do all he can to make things right for others.
Two years later, Bleiweiss’s Fort Lauderdale lawyer, Richard Merlino, used the Florida Justice Center as the centerpiece of his argument that Bleiweiss should be freed early from the restrictions of his negotiated 10-year probation.
MORE THAN A ‘MODEL PROBATIONER’
“He has done magnificently,” Merlino said at a Dec. 1, 2021 hearing on his motion to end Bleiweiss’s probation after about three years. By founding the justice center, his client has “proven himself beyond the scope of just a simple model probationer.”
Neither Merlino nor Bleiweiss’s appellate lawyer, Daniel Tibbitt of North Miami, responded to Florida Bulldog’s questions about the Oct. 20 decision from a unanimous three-judge panel of the Fourth District Court of Appeal. It affirmed, without explanation, a ruling by Garcia-Wood that Bleiweiss violated his probation.
The court found that Bleiweiss violated his probation by refusing to submit to a psycho-sexual evaluation meant to determine whether or not he’s a serial sexual predator. To secure his lenient sentence, he had agreed to the evaluation and related treatment.
After Bleiweiss was picked up on a probation violation warrant early this year, his lawyer Merlino and Neva Rainford Smith, the longtime prosecutor on the case, squared off in Garcia-Wood’s courtroom. Merlino argued the warrant should be dismissed because Bleiweiss finished his treatment; Smith argued it should be upheld because Bleiweiss didn’t fulfill his end of the plea bargain in good faith.
BLEIWEISS: NO TREATMENT NEEDED
She noted the Department of Corrections determined that Bleiweiss failed to complete sex offender treatment.
“He was discharged from the program because he insisted he did not have a psychological or behavior problem that would be helped by treatment,” and that he was wrongfully convicted, Smith wrote in her motion.
To counter that, she quoted the discharge report by John W. Morin of the Center for Rehabilitation and Education: “Bleiweiss’s risk for sexual re-offense is in the above [average] range. Several dynamic risk factors add to his risk. It appears likely that his sex crimes were driven by hatred and/or sadistic impulse rather than purely sexual desires.”
That’s not the portrait of Bleiweiss that Merlino extolled when he tried to win his client’s early release from probation.
Melba Pearson, a Florida Justice Center board member and former Miami-Dade prosecutor, testified for Bleiweiss at the December 2021 hearing. She said she met him in early 2020, when she was running for Miami-Dade State Attorney, a race she lost.
DRIVEN TO ‘GIVE BACK’ OR TO ABUSE?
“I was incredibly impressed with his drive, what his vision was,” Pearson said, according to a transcript. “I’ve never seen someone with so much drive to give back to the community.”
On cross-examination, Smith said, “You talk about his drive, how driven he is. You don’t know that he was just as driven when he was abusing the illegal immigrants that he pulled over in his police cruiser. Do you know that?”
Pearson responded that she knew “there are a number of victims.” She admitted she didn’t know the details. She did not respond this week to questions from Florida Bulldog.
Alex Saiz, the Florida Justice Center’s Coral Gables-based legal director, wrote in response to emailed questions that the center will survive with or without Bleiweiss.
The Florida Justice Center “is an organization that helps thousands of people each year. It is not one person. Were Jonathan to continue as the executive director or someone else were to take over, the organizational operations would continue uninterrupted,” Saiz wrote.
FLORIDA JUSTICE CENTER SITE HAS NEW BRANDING
The Florida Justice Center’s website declares it to be “the only nonprofit organization that provides voting advice by licensed attorneys in accordance with Department of Corrections guidelines.”
The center used to describe itself as “the first and only legal aid organization in the state authorized to practice criminal law.” That was after it received a one-page letter dated Dec. 1, 2020 from the clerk of the Florida Supreme Court granting the Florida Justice Center “organizational approval.”
In June Florida Bulldog asked court spokesman Paul Flemming about the designation and reported that it allows a practicing attorney to supervise law students providing pro bono legal services. It’s not “a seal of approval for everything that this nonprofit corporation does,” Flemming said.
Curiously, at some point between June and this week, the Florida Justice Center stopped publicly proclaiming its authority to practice criminal law.