For decades, thousands of Floridians have faced misdemeanor charges without any legal representation, according to an analysis by the Miami New Times.
New Times analyzed multiple state databases to provide the most accurate estimate to date of how many times misdemeanor defendants have gone to court without a lawyer in all 20 court circuits in Florida.
Reporters cross-referenced public defender caseloads with state records to show the percentage of cases in each court circuit where public defenders were appointed in misdemeanor, criminal traffic, and other low-level cases in the 2017-18 fiscal year.
Of all misdemeanor cases statewide, they found only 45% had a public defender present.
Representation was lowest in the state's most populous counties. In Miami-Dade, public defenders were appointed in 39% of 66,234 cases. In Jacksonville, the percentage fell to 32%. And Broward was by far the worst-scoring county, with only 24% of misdemeanor and criminal traffic cases proceeding with a public defender in the courtroom.
Only 13% percent of misdemeanor cases in Florida proceed with a private attorney present, which leaves thousands of people to face criminal charges with no legal help.
Two state laws discourage low-income people from getting legal help. First, there's a $50 fee to apply for a public defender that judges can't waive even if defendants can't afford to pay it. Second, under Florida law, criminal defendants who aren't facing jail time have no right to a state-appointed lawyer in court.
If a prosecutor files a notice saying that the state is not seeking jail time, a judge can take away the defendant's state-appointed lawyer.
"What struck us with how it works in Florida, the prosecutor has to move for an order of 'no incarceration' — and then judges are just doing this whenever the DA [district attorney] asks for it," ACLU lawyer Brandon Buskey told New Times.
Mr. Buskey sued the state in 2017 on behalf of a man whose state-appointed attorney was removed by the judge through this process, but the suit was dismissed. He told New Times that prosecutors kick public defenders out when they know they have a weak case. Even though jail time is taken off the table, he said, "the civil consequences — losing your job, deportation — can actually be worse than jail time."
Defendants who appear in court without a lawyer are significantly more likely to accept plea deals from prosecutors, spend extra time in prison, and pay higher court costs, New Times reports.
People often plead guilty to charges without understanding that they'll end up with a permanent criminal record. Employees can be fired for pleading guilty to low-level traffic charges. People who fail to pay court fees lose their driver's license, which makes getting to work, taking kids to school, shopping for food, and taking care of loved ones even more difficult. And if someone pleads to a low-level charge that leads to only a court fee, federal immigration authorities can still use the conviction to begin deportation proceedings on undocumented people.
Keeping public defenders out of the courtroom prevents them from identifying broader patterns of police misconduct, Miami-Dade's chief public defender, Carlos Martinez, told New Times. And without a defense lawyer to hold them accountable, prosecutors are even less likely to disclose helpful evidence — including evidence that undermines a police officer's credibility.
Florida isn't the only state where prosecutors and judges can remove public defenders from cases, New Times reports. Many states have similar provisions, and the majority of states charge a fee for access to a court-appointed lawyer. A 2014 NPR investigation found that 43 states still allow courts to charge public defense fees.
Misdemeanors account for 80% of American criminal dockets. All but a handful of the 13 million misdemeanor cases filed each year across the country are resolved by plea deals, and recent studies have found that racial disparities in plea agreements were even greater in misdemeanor cases than in felony cases.