MIAMI – Poor people requiring representation by the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office may be left to their own devices when fighting certain criminal charges against them, in spite of their constitutional right to receive effective legal counsel regardless of their ability to pay.
In a Dec. 2, 2008 letter, Miami-Dade Chief Public Defender Carlos Martinez and his immediate predecessor, Bennett H. Brummer, jointly warned that the condition of the office “has reached the breaking point.”
In the letter, addressed to Joseph P. Farina, chief judge of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit, Martinez and Brummer cited caseloads in excess of 500 for the 96 attorneys handling non-capital felony cases.
Brummer, who retired this month after serving more than 30 years in office, won a court order in September allowing the office to withdraw from minor felony cases – a ruling that became moot when the order was stayed by the 3rd District Court of Appeal.
That judicial body will not render an appellate decision before March 30, forcing the Public Defender’s Office to essentially wave the white flag of surrender to some of its clients and the judges hearing their cases.
In the three-page letter, Brummer and Martinez officially notified the chief judge that, “PD-11 will officially inform our clients and the courts by filing notices as to our lack of professional capacity to timely and effectively investigate cases, meet with clients, locate and interview witnesses, take depositions, and otherwise prepare for trial in a timely manner, and further advising them of probable serious delays in handling their cases if they wish us to handle them.”
Martinez, who took over the job of chief public defender from Brummer this month, could not be reached for comment.
In an emailed statement, Farina echoed the concerns of Martinez and Brummer, stating, “The Public Defender’s Office, along with the State Attorney’s Office and local Trial Courts, are struggling under severe budget cuts. Even so, those of us who labor daily in our criminal courts continue to show professionalism and commitment to the people of Miami-Dade County. We will continue to serve the public as best we can, in spite of this financial crisis.”
The local office of the American Civil Liberties Union also supports the position taken by Brummer and Martinez. Carlene Sawyer, chair of the Greater Miami Chapter of the ACLU of Florida, said quality legal representation guaranteed by the Constitution “cannot be given on the cheap.”
While the crisis has reached a boiling point, some relief may be forthcoming. During the special legislative session called to deal with the state’s budget crisis, both chambers of the state
Legislature agreed on Jan. 14, the last day of the session, to forestall any further cuts to the overwhelmed state court system. Instead, they voted to raise traffic fines and allow judges to impose court fines even in cases where adjudication of guilt is withheld.
Motorists can expect to pay an additional $25 for speeding fines and $10 more for all traffic infractions. The move is expected to raise $15 million for prosecutors and public defenders for the remainder of this year, and $55 million next year.
During a recent, two-day evidentiary hearing, it was revealed that several assistant public defenders – some saddled with huge law student-loan debt — are working second jobs to make ends meet on $42,000 salaries, with no raises in sight.
According to a report in the Florida Bar News, Assistant Public Defender Amy Weber tearfully testified that she was so harried with 13 cases set for trial in one week that she failed to convey a prosecutor’s plea offer to her client. Consequently, instead of serving 364 days in jail, the defendant was sentenced to five years in state prison.
Photo: Miami-Dade Chief Public Defender Carlos Martinez