Misdemeanor Cases and Courts

Three Minute Justice and Minor Crimes, Major Waste reports.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers studied misdemeanor courts and procedures in 21 Florida counties and recently released a report entitled Three Minute Justice: Haste and Waste in Florida’s Misdemeanor Courts. This report documents how practices in county courts fail to safeguard the right to counsel and the right to due process of law.

Nearly a half million people, or approximately 3% of the state’s adults, pass through Florida’s misdemeanor courts each year. While the charges adjudicated in these courts are often viewed as minor, the consequences of conviction are significant. Not only are there direct, immediate costs of such a conviction (fines and/or imprisonment), but often there are also long-term, collateral consequences (employment barriers and possible deportation). Despite these serious stakes, an eight-month investigation of one-third of Florida’s counties reveals disturbing evidence that efficiency commonly trumps due process in Florida’s misdemeanor courts, particularly in the larger counties.

Most individuals accused of misdemeanors resolve their cases at the first hearing, the arraignment. A large percentage does so without a lawyer, notwithstanding the well-recognized importance of counsel to ensure the accused “may know precisely what he is doing, so that he is fully aware of the prospect of going to jail or prison, and so that he is treated fairly by the prosecution.” The overwhelming majority plead guilty. Indeed, 94% of misdemeanor cases are resolved before trial.

On average, these arraignment proceedings lasted fewer than three minutes, even when defendants were pleading guilty. Upon entering a plea, few were advised of their right to appeal or the immigration consequences of entering a plea. Some defendants were informed of their rights by video or rights-waiver form, but in less than 50% of cases were the defendants who were pleading guilty directly advised by the trial judge of the rights they were forfeiting. The NACDL, in conjunction with the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union, recently filed an Amicus Brief in the case of Edenfiled v. State of Florida pending before the Supreme Court of Florida arguing that the practice of using videos and forms to obtain a waiver of the right to counsel is a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

In-custody defendants and defendants without counsel were most likely to enter a guilty plea at arraignment. Defendants who entered a plea at arraignment were three times more likely to be unrepresented. Pleading guilty without counsel occurred more often in larger, rather than small counties. Moreover, defendants who were less informed of their rights to counsel were also more likely to enter a plea at arraignment.

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