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Jun 04 2014

Florida Judge’s Physical Fight With Lawyer Is A Wake-Up Call on Many Issues

It’s the kind of story the internet loves because it was captured on video. And it involves a lawyer getting punched in the face – – -by a judge, no less. And as I read the many stories that pretty much just recited the basic news feed of the event, I decided to track down and view the entire video to get an idea of what exactly happened. It became clear that this little vignette speaks volumes about major issues in the criminal justice system which permeate many courtrooms particularly in suburban and rural courtrooms.

Judge John Murphy of Brevard County (home of Cocoa Beach) was on the bench in a “first appearance” or arraignment part.  One of the public defenders assigned to the courtroom was Andrew Weinstock.  From my understanding, the way it basically works is that folks appearing for the first time sit on the bench and then one-by-one come up to  the podium in front of the judge for a determination of whether they will accept the DA’s offer or plea bargain; or go to trial; or put the case on for “docket sounding.” Now I had to look that up but in Florida “docket sounding” means a court date where a conference will be had to see if the case can be plead out or needs to be tried. Now this appearance is when the DA has filed formal charges after the defendant had been previously arrested. So if the DA has delayed that process, the speedy trial clock has been ticking for a awhile. If it is adjourned for docket sounding, then the speedy trial clock stops as this is done at the request of the defendant.  [If any Florida defense lawyers can confirm that I am right about the procedure or let me know what I got wrong it would be appreciated].

Flag_of_FloridaSo early on the video shows Weinstock doing his normal job as a deputy public defender, even assisting a person who was not on the calendar at the judge’s request. The exchange seems neutral, if not friendly and certainly  would not be an indicator of what came next. On older cases, Weinstock began stating that he would not waive speedy trial.  He then was leaving it up to the judge to determine how to address what happens next.  He apparently was doing that  (as opposed to asking for a trial) as there is backlog of trial-ready cases that the court can’t handle and which has caused the State to declare an emergency situation in the court system which allows them to take longer than usual under speedy trial rules. After he does this once or twice, the judge asks Weinstock “What do you want to do ?” and Weinstock replies” I’m not waiving speedy trial, so what do you want to do? Mark it for docket sounding or mark it for trial but I’m not waiving speedy trial”  When the judge tells Weinstock that “If [he] had a rock [he] would throw it at him” Weinstock speaks a little louder and says “This is an emergency created by the State. I did not create this emergency.” That sets the judge off even more and he says “Stop pissing me off. Sit down and shut up I don’t need your help.”  Weinstock continues to try and argue telling the judge that he is the public defender and he will stand next to his client and not sit down.  That’s the last straw with the judge who shouts “If you want a fight  let;s go outside and I’ll beat your ass.” The men then walk out of the courtroom to a hallway off to the side of the court (and out of view of cameras). You then hear the judge scream  at top voice “You wanna fuck with me?! ” You then hear the sounds of scuffle which observers have said is the judge grabbing Weinstock by the collar and repeatedly punching him in the head until the courtroom deputies decide to snap out of their coma and break up the fight. Here’s a link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCe8D3TSFGk

Now while the media has focused on the fight and the judge’s irrational loss of temper, the scenario raises many issues about the system: Insufficient allocation of resources to allow defendants to exercise their right to a speedy trial; courts not respecting that right enough; local judges aligning themselves with the prosecutor’s office; judges not having respect for the service performed by public defenders; and the belief that a defense attorney standing his ground and asserting his client’s rights is “picking a fight.”  Look at the videotape – you will see Andrew Weinstock doing his job – advocating his client’s rights and trying to make a record for appeal that this “State-declared emergency”  is violating his client’s Constitutional rights. But I have not seen any piece in the media commending Weinstock for doing so. Here he is in the bowels of the Brevard County courthouse, representing poor people charged with mostly petty crimes and yet he has the fire still burning in him to do his job right – to zealously advocate for his client’s rights. Too often, in too many courtrooms like that in Brevard County,  asserting your rights means losing your rights. Judges and DAs routinely tell defendants that if they don’t plead early, they will get more time after trial. In Nassau County, if you demand to get discovery, you are often told that you will not be offered a plea bargain.  There has to be a better understanding that this is an adversarial system and that the court is NOT an arm of the prosecutor’s office. This point goes back to my last blog post about the need to appoint judges with criminal defense experience to add balance to the system.  Like many other judges, good old John Murphy had a reputation as a “no nonsense” “tough on crime” ex-Army Colonel who spent twenty years in his father’s trust and estates law firm.  He obviously saw Weinstock’s advocacy as an attack on the system at large and on him personally.

Until we do something to add meaning and weight to the rights contained in our Constitution, courts will continue to merely pay lip service to the basic principles contained in the Bill of Rights – the right to counsel; the right to be free from excessive bail; and the right to speedy trial among others. While Judge Murphy is off the bench temporarily while he gets anger management, he should be forced to re-take Constitutional Law 101 in law school so that he will recognize proper  lawyering when he sees it next time ( if there is a next time).

7 comments

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  1. Frank Guzman

    Counsel, you are razor sharp to pinpoint the constant battles in criminal trial court. Should you seek to preserve your client’s rights…your branded as problem…I support the Florida public defender for his convictions.

  2. Roland Thau

    Murphy should be driven from the bench, prosecuted for violating the defendant’s civil rights by trying to intimidate him into waiving his speedy trial rights; menacing and assaulting defense counsel; interfering with the lawyer’s duty to represent his client vigorously: contempt of court (yes, judges who improperly disrupt court proceedings are in contempt). If convicted, he should be sentenced to custodial time and finally disbarred. Roland Thau

    1. Oscar Michelen

      I certainly think he deserves more than just anger management for this but don’t know his previous record or if this was an isolated incident to say what his ultimate punishment should be.

  3. roenigk

    What was really despicable was when the judge returned to the courtroom and then asked the defendant a substantive question without counsel. IF that defendant had waived his speedy trial, one would think his case would quickly be tossed at a later date.

    Does anyone happen to have an update on what happened on June 9th? Did he go to trial and what was the result?

    1. Oscar Michelen

      I couldn’t find anything online about it

  4. James Boyland

    It is my understanding that the basis for the argument was Weinstock’s failure to meet with his clients prior to the arraignment. He did not discuss the speedy trial option with the defendant before waiving it. The judge had received many complaints from defendants about Weinstock not returning calls or answering written inquiries. He was also know for appearing in court unprepared and often late. The men waiting arraignment cheered the judge.

    1. Oscar Michelen

      The judge should have put all of that on the record and embarrassed Weinstock to respond and explain himself not physically challenge him. That’s how its done in a rational court of law

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