MIAMI — The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Florida filed a suit today advancing new constitutional arguments to challenge the removal of public defenders from ongoing criminal cases in Miami-Dade County. Miami-Dade Criminal Court Judge Andrew Hague dismisses these attorneys when prosecutors tell him they have decided not to seek jail time, leaving poor defendants with no option but to represent themselves. This practice, which doesn’t affect defendants who can afford private attorneys, violates the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments.
“Imagine facing a criminal charge without any legal help—it’s just you against a prosecutor working closely with the police to build a case against you. In Miami-Dade county, Judge Andrew Hague routinely traps poor people in that nightmare,” said Brandon Buskey, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “The judge forces defendants to represent themselves against criminal charges, indifferent to the fact that their futures are on the line.”
Lazaro Rodriguez, the plaintiff in the ACLU’s lawsuit, was assigned a public defender for a criminal case arising from a traffic stop by Miami police. The police charged Mr. Rodriguez with threatening an officer and resisting an officer without violence after he argued with them over a speeding ticket and, while they handcuffed him, bent down to pull up his pants, which had fallen down. Mr. Rodriguez was assigned a public defender, who argued successfully for his release and immediately began crafting a defense strategy.
Judge Hague removed the public defender from Mr. Rodriguez’s case at the next court date when the prosecutor decided not to seek jail time. Mr. Rodriguez, relying on a court interpreter because Spanish is his first language, had to defend himself at trial. He was unable to cross-examine the police officers who arrested him or respond effectively to objections from the prosecutor. Judge Hague found him guilty and fined him $358 in court costs.
“When Judge Hague took away Lazaro Rodriguez’s attorney, he robbed him of his chance for a fair trial,” said Jackie Azis, Staff Attorney, with the ACLU of Florida. “The 90-minute trial Mr. Rodriguez endured was hopelessly muddled—he was at a severe disadvantage as a layperson who doesn’t know court rules and as a Spanish speaker who must communicate about complex legal questions through an interpreter. The result was a sham.”
Judge Hague didn’t inform Mr. Rodriguez of his right to appeal. His conviction is final. The ACLU’s lawsuit would require the defendants—Judge Hague; Harvey Ruvin, Clerk of the Courts for Miami-Dade County, and Richard Swearingen, Commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement—to invalidate his conviction and retry him only if they provide him with a public defender.
Other judges in Florida, as well as states like Virginia, engage in the practice of removing public defenders when prosecutors aren’t seeking jail time.
For the complaint and more information about the lawsuit:
ACLU of Florida: