When Prosecutors Decide Who Keeps Their Public Defender, Injustice Is Certain

Lazaro Rodriguez was forced to represent himself at his criminal trial in Miami, another victim of the kind of assembly line justice that has ruined too many lives.

The case against Rodriguez involved a traffic stop during the early morning hours of Dec. 17, 2015. He and his partner were pulled over for speeding by Miami police. When he protested the ticket and his treatment by the officers, they arrested him. As they were handcuffing him, his pants fell to the ground. When he tried to pull them up, the officers charged him with one felony count of threatening an officer and two misdemeanor counts of resisting an officer without violence.

The next day, the court appointed an attorney from the Miami-Dade public defender’s office to represent Rodriguez because he could not afford counsel. The public defender convinced the judge that Rodriguez should be released on low bail, in part by arguing that the felony charge of threatening an officer was baseless. She then asserted Rodriguez’s right to a jury trial, filed a written demand for discovery, and requested to depose the state’s witnesses. Following the hearing, the public defender interviewed Rodriguez to begin developing a list of potential witnesses and mapping out a defense strategy.

At the next court date in January 2016, the prosecution dropped the felony charge and one of the misdemeanor resisting charges. This left only one misdemeanor charge, which created a problem for the prosecution. Under Florida law, resisting arrest requires a valid arrest. But if Rodriguez’s felony charge was bogus, what was the basis for the arrest he supposedly resisted?

With its case falling apart, the prosecution did something drastic: It asked presiding Judge Andrew Hague to dismiss Rodriguez’s public defender on the grounds that it would not seek jail time. This meant Rodriguez was no longer entitled to a lawyer.

What happened to Rodriguez is fundamentally unfair. But it is not yet unconstitutional.

Since the vast majority of misdemeanor cases in Miami-Dade County do not end with a conviction (or subsequent jail time) the prosecutor’s decision not to seek jail time was a minor concession. The public defender objected, arguing that Florida law required Judge Hague to determine whether her removal would disadvantage Mr. Rodriguez. The judge ignored this request and discharged the lawyer.

On April 27, 2016, Rodriguez had his day in court, representing himself. Things did not go well. Rodriguez unwittingly waived his right to a jury trial after Judge Hague failed to explain what was happening. The prosecution’s case rested entirely on the testimony of the arresting officers. But because Rodriguez did not know how to follow up with the public defender’s requests for discovery and depositions, he was unprepared to challenge the officers’ testimony. To make matters worse, Judge Hague repeatedly and loudly berated Rodriguez for not knowing how to ask questions like a lawyer.

After a trial that lasted barely 90 minutes, Judge Hague convicted Rodriguez of resisting arrest and imposed a fine of $358. But the judge failed to inform Rodriguez that he had a right to appeal or that he would have the right to a lawyer for an appeal. So Rodriguez did not appeal and remains a convicted criminal to this day.

What happened to Rodriguez is fundamentally unfair. But it is not yet unconstitutional.

Nearly 40 years ago, the United States Supreme Court held in Scott v. Illinois that the Sixth Amendment, despite guaranteeing the right to counsel “in all criminal cases,” only applies to misdemeanor defendants who receive a sentence of incarceration. Scott helped lay the foundation for the assembly-line justice practiced in most misdemeanor courts today, where thousands of defendants are convicted every day without having a lawyer.

Even without jail time, these convictions can irrevocably damage a life. The consequences of having a criminal record can include deportation, loss of employment or housing, and ineligibility for crucial public benefits, what many refer to as a “civil death.”

These civil consequences are real, and they are insidious. That is why every person accused of a crime must have a lawyer. That is the plain language of the Sixth Amendment. It is also required by the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the 14th Amendment. The quality of justice a person receives should not depend on wealth.

A defendant with more resources than Lazaro Rodriguez would have been able to pay for an attorney to defend against the charges. That's why we’re suing Judge Hague and other officials and demanding that they invalidate Rodriguez’s conviction and finally give him a fair trial with a lawyer.

Ending the prosecution’s power to decide who deserves a public defender is a critical part of protecting the right to a fair trial for everyone, not just the wealthy.

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Dr. Joseph Goebbels

Show how this article is not giving us the whole picture. What was he and "his partner" doing in that car that would cause his pants to fall down ?

Anonymous

Explain how the answer to your question is somehow valid, you authoritarian piece of shit.

Anonymous

What a pervert. Have a nice day visualizing your sick thoughts. Please take care around children and the civilized.

Anonymous

That's actually irrelevant, "Dr" Goebbels. He may have been one of those kids that likes to wear their jeans barely hanging on, and they slipped.

Anonymous

He wasn't charged with anything beyond what is stated in the story. Are you implying the police failed to report and charge him with the real charges and instead charged him with charges they couldn't even defend and eventually dropped?? That is the most ridiculous conconction of bullshit I've read all week.

Alejandrina

How is the question in any way relevant? his rights were violated and that is what matters.

Telzey Amberdon

You love to be offensive. It's fun. And that's sad.

https://youtu.be/gnXBeQwmmrc

Diablos Advocate

I think we DO have the scenario. He was pulled over for, and charged with SPEEDING. What we have well-established is COPS often respond to anyone who questions them, denies guilt, etc. by ARRESTING that person. When out of his vehicle, yes, his pants fell (were falling??] and because he reached to pull them up, he was charged with resisting arrest. WT??? What if his shoe had been untied and he bent over to tie his shoe? Or he'd been driving with shirt unbuttoned, but then went to button it? See - what you've chosen to focus on is IRRELEVANT. If it had been 'relevant' he would have been charged with **something** that made his 'falling pants' an illegal act. NO charge, or mention of, any 'illicit sex act', or anything like what you're trying to ALLUDE to. I can only infer that you are, in addition to lacking even basic understanding of our Constitution, a PERVERT. The PROBLEM with allowing these violations of rights is that it threatens ALL OF US. I admit I had a fleeting thought of - JJ&M $358 fine paid over a year, what's the big deal - well, the BIG DEAL is the STATE is virtually extorting money from people -and courts are complicit in denying rights. BTW IF the behavior of this judge were 'appropriate' they would ALL be doing it -- clearly this one needs to be off the bench - but his actions need to be challenged.

Anonymous

If they were handcuffing them they would have had them standing up OUT of the car, and yes a lot of baggy pants worn today can slip down. You might want to check your presumptions

Anonymous

What are you trying to imply? Are you trying to project your own pants-dropping car activities on this man? Shut the hell up, classless moron!

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