Florida Supreme Court Permits Overworked Public Defenders to Withdraw From Cases – Public Defender v. State of Florida

May 30, 2013 by David S. Seltzer

As a former Miami-Dade County prosecutor who now works as a private criminal defense attorney, I appreciate what public defenders do. These are the attorneys who represent people who can’t afford a private attorney, and it’s generally acknowledged that they have a tough job, with a large caseload that can make it hard to get to know each client’s case. So I was extremely interested to see the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling in Public Defender, Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida v. State . This is actually a case that consolidated two appeals: one from the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s office, and another from an individual public defender from that office. Both cases made the argument that the right of the public defender’s clients to effective representation was being violated by the office’s excessive caseload. The Florida Supreme Court’s ruling permitted the office to withdraw, leaving defendants to fall back on state-appointed private attorneys.

The case filed by the public defender’s office started when it moved to withdraw from 21 cases, saying it wanted to withdraw from all future non-capital felony cases because of a conflict of interests. It alleged that its excessive workloads, created by underfunding, made it impossible to meet its legal and ethical obligations. The trial court ultimately decided that the caseload was indeed excessive, allowing the office to provide only minimally competent representation, and granted the motion to withdraw from all future non-capital felonies after arraignment. The Third District Court of Appeal took the case on the State’s appeal and reversed the trial court’s order, ruling that excessive caseloads do not create a conflict of interests and that it was inappropriate to decide the cases in the aggregate.

In the single-defender case, the trial court granted an individual public defender’s motion to withdraw for a conflict of interests, citing the same logic. It also denied a constitutionality challenge to the Florida statute that excludes excessive caseload as a reason to withdraw from cases. The Third District upheld the constitutionality and quashed the order allowing the defender to withdraw.

The cases were consolidated before the Florida Supreme Court, which ultimately found that excessive caseload is a permissible reason for the public defender’s office to withdraw. The high court said it was struck by the evidence that the public defenders were overwhelmed. For example, Miami-Dade public defenders routinely represented twice as many non-capital felonies per year as recommended; they may have 50 cases going to trial in a week. Because of this, the court said, defenders can’t do basic parts of their job and must prioritize some clients over others. It reversed the Third, saying aggregate withdrawals are most efficient in this case, and that the public defender’s office demonstrated cause for withdrawal. It then held that while the statute forbidding public defenders from withdrawing solely because of excessive caseload was constitutional, public defenders may withdraw anyway if they demonstrate that their excessive caseloads would result in ineffective representation. A dissent argued that the court should have required proof of imminent harm or likelihood of harm.

The dissent is arguing that evidence of huge caseloads is not adequate to demonstrate likelihood of imminent harm to Miami-Dade defendants. I disagree. One of my advantages as a private criminal defense attorney is that I can limit how many cases I take, in order to ensure that the cases I do take get enough attention to give each client adequate representation. Public defenders don’t have that luxury because they work for the state. I see no reason to require that they prove they are not superhuman—or, worse, allow a case to slip through the cracks and harm a defendant—before the situation is remedied. The non-capital felony cases at issue in this decision are often very serious; many drug crimes are non-capital felonies, as is sexual battery in most cases. These crimes carry many years in prison and the prospect of living with a felony conviction for life, which is why it’s vital for each defendant’s future that he or she gets adequate representation right away.

If you’re accused of a serious crime in south Florida, you should call the experienced criminal defense attorneys at Seltzer Law, P.A. We answer the phone 24 hours a day and seven days a week because we know police don’t just make arrests from 9 to 5. To learn more or set up a free, confidential consultation, call us at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us an email.

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