Florida Supreme Court Imposes Sanctions on Prisoner for Filing Too Many Legal Cases – Hastings v. State

November 23, 2011 by David S. Seltzer

As a Miami criminal defense lawyer, I strongly urge people facing serious legal cases to hire some kind of experienced attorney, even if it’s not me. People who represent themselves in any situation are at a serious disadvantage, but people who represent themselves in criminal cases run the risk of losing their freedom or even their lives because of mistakes professionals are unlikely to make. Sometimes, people who represent themselves have good cases, but they don’t know how to present them properly, and deadlines pass before they can fix the situation. To make matters worse, while the courts typically extend some sympathy to self-represented people (who are called pro se), judges used to dealing with professional attorneys can lose their patience. So it wasn’t surprising to see the Florida Supreme Court order sanctions against one pro se plaintiff in Hastings v. State of Florida.

Jeffrey Robert Hastings is an inmate serving 180 years in state prison for the manslaughters of six people, as a habitual offender, and 15 more years for escaping from prison. His last sentencing was in 1980. After his convictions became final, he began filing numerous legal cases, acting as his own attorney. In 1998, a trial court prohibited him from filing any more pro se cases about his manslaughter convictions. Two opinions followed from the Fourth and Fifth District Courts of Appeal, upholding that decision and also prohibiting him from filing pro se cases over his escape conviction and sentence. In 2010, Hastings filed with the Florida Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus — ordering a lower court to do something — to compel the public defender’s office to help him fight his convictions. This was dismissed in May of 2011, but the court further asked Hastings to show why it should not reject any similar future filings.

In his response, Hastings argued that he should not be penalized for his lack of legal sophistication or the lower courts’ unwillingness to reverse sentences he says are illegal. He also noted that some of the petitions he filed had to do with matters other than his convictions and sentences, such as parole. The Florida Supreme Court was not impressed. In its opinion, the court listed 26 other petitions Hastings had filed with the Florida Supreme Court since 2000. While some did pertain to parole and gain time, the court said, many more attacked his convictions and sentences. The Supreme Court found all of them meritless or inappropriate for the court. In this case, the court said, Hastings did not justify what it said was misuse of the courts, or show remorse. It said he was likely to continue filing petitions if not stopped. Such litigants waste limited judicial resources and block access to justice by other citizens, the high court noted. Thus, it directed the clerk of the court to reject all future filings by Hastings having to do with his convictions and sentences, unless signed by a member of the Florida State Bar.

Although this order theoretically creates more work for south Florida criminal defense attorneys like me, I cannot like it. Limiting someone’s access to justice so severely is a serious penalty that should only be used when the litigant is genuinely out of control. Though the Supreme Court did not have space to explain why each petition was without merit, this opinion never even attempted to reach the issue of whether Hastings did indeed get an illegal sentence. Thanks to my experience as a Fort Lauderdale manslaughter criminal defense lawyer, I happen to know that manslaughter normally carries up to 15 years in prison, which means Hastings was sentenced to double the normal maximum time in that case. This is not to say that his claims did have merit — but if they did, an experienced attorney could have made the difference.

Based in Miami, Seltzer Law, P.A., represents clients across Florida who are facing serious criminal charges. For a free consultation, send us an email or call 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) today.

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