Can You Be Denied an Attorney in a Florida Criminal Case?
If you are facing jail time for a criminal offense, you might just assume you have the right to the assistance of a criminal defense lawyer. After all, doesn’t the Constitution protect the right to counsel? It turns out the answer is, “Not in all cases.” The Florida Supreme Court recently addressed the right to counsel in a specific type of proceeding known as “criminal contempt,” where a man was initially sentenced to 30 days in jail without even being afforded an opportunity to speak with a lawyer.
Supreme Court Tosses Contempt Charge Against Allegedly Drunk Juror
You have probably heard the phrase “contempt of court” before. It broadly refers to conduct that disrespects or undermines the authority of a court to exercise its judicial functions. For example, if a person subpoenaed to testify in a trial fails to appear without explanation, the judge could find that person in contempt of court. In some cases, contempt of court is treated as a criminal offense.
The Florida Supreme Court’s recent contempt decision involved a man called for jury duty. The man objected to serving on a jury for various reasons but the court did not excuse him. Some other jurors informed the judge they smelled alcohol on the man’s breath. The judge subsequently ordered a probation officer to administer a breathalyzer test, which indicated the man had a blood-alcohol level above Florida’s limit for driving under the influence of alcohol.
The judge ordered the man handcuffed and questioned him in court without a lawyer. She ultimately held him in criminal contempt and ordered him to spend 30 days in jail because he was “disruptive during jury selection” and she assumed he had driven to the courthouse drunk. The judge later released the man after 17 days in jail.
Through a public defender, the man appealed his criminal contempt conviction and sentence. The Florida Supreme Court ultimately reversed the conviction. All seven justices agreed this was appropriate. The Court divided 4-3, however, on its reasoning.
Criminal contempt may be direct or indirect. Direct contempt refers to conduct that occurs in the presence of the judge. Here, the Supreme Court said the trial judge relied on events that occurred outside of her presence, notably the breathalyzer test administered to the defendant and the testimony of the other jurors. The Supreme Court said that under these circumstances—where the defendant committed indirect, rather than direct, contempt—the judge should have either appointed a public defender to represent the man before holding him in criminal contempt or given him a chance to hire his own lawyer.
Where the Supreme Court disagreed was whether a defendant in a direct contempt proceeding would be similarly entitled to counsel. The majority held there was no such right in most cases, holding direct criminal contempt “requires fewer procedural safeguards and permits a trial court to summarily punish the contemnor’s misconduct so long as the misconduct was committed in the actual presence of the court.” However, the majority said a poor defendant facing more than six months in jail for a direct contempt conviction was entitled to a public defender.
Exercise Your Constitutional Right to a Defense Lawyer
The three dissenting judges argued that any person facing jail time should have the right to an attorney, regardless of whether they are charged with direct or indirect contempt. Indeed, the right to an attorney is one of our most important constitutional safeguards Unfortunately, the majority’s decision undermines this right.
No matter what the charge, if you face the possibility of incarceration it is essential you hire a Miami criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Contact the Law Office of Julia Kefalinos today if you need to speak with someone right away.