Groups challenge administration of rights to misdemeanor defendants
By Gary Blankenship
The Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, along with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union, are seeking to join a pending appeal at the Supreme Court challenging the way misdemeanor defendants are informed of their rights in the Fourth Judicial Circuit.
The case was brought by a person who initially pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor DUI and now claims the information he was given about his rights was insufficient and influenced him and others to accept pleas to quickly resolve their cases.
The Supreme Court accepted jurisdiction in June but has yet to set oral argument.
The FACDL, NACDL, and ACLU argued that the Duval County courts, in streamlining the way they handle first appearances, have reduced or eliminated the right to counsel for misdemeanor defendants.
“Defendants are encouraged to resolve their cases during the first appearance in court, without the guiding hand of counsel and without any knowledge of the potentially severe collateral consequences of entering pleas of guilty or no contest,” their brief contends. “. . . . The presence of the prosecutor, who is quick to offer a defendant a plea bargain, coupled with the county court’s suggestion that consultation with defense counsel is unnecessary, creates an uneven playing field that relies on the defendant to assert his right to counsel despite all indications that doing so will be contrary to his interests. The result is ‘assembly line justice’ that may move the cases through quickly, but fails to fulfill the requirements of sections 2 and 16 of article I of the Florida Constitution and Rule 3.111 of the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure.”
According to the petitioner’s brief, the case came about when Eric Edenfield was arrested for DUI in 2009. A few hours later, he was brought to court with numerous other misdemeanor and felony defendants for first appearance.
Prior to the appearance, all the defendants were given a “blue form” titled “Plea of Guilty or No Contest” and also advised of their rights, including the right to an attorney, and the maximum and minimum penalties for DUI, and other information. The defendants were also shown a video where a judge explained the defendants’ right to counsel, the advantages of being represented by counsel, and the dangers of self-representation.
The video tells the misdemeanor defendants the upcoming hearing is their arraignment, and they must enter a plea, the penalties they face, and the rights they waive if they enter a plea. A discussion of the possibility of release if a defendant pleads not guilty is also discussed.
At the hearing, the judge asked the group if anyone did not understand the rights explained on the video, and no one raised their hand.
The judge then proceeded to handle the individual cases against each defendant. When the judge got to Edenfield, he asked if he wanted an appointed counsel or to represent himself. Edenfield responded he would represent himself and proceeded to plead no contest. He also acknowledged that he had read the “blue form” and understood all of the rights explained.
About a month later, Edenfield filed a petition to withdraw his plea. The judge denied the request after making “it clear that the procedure used for Mr. Edenfield’s and all other first appearance hearings was designed to save time,” according to Edenfield’s brief to the Supreme Court.
A panel of circuit judges turned Edenfield down on appeal, and the First District Court of Appeal found the video, the “blue form,” and the questions asked by the judge met the requirements of Fla. R. Crim. P. 3.111. Edenfield then appealed to the Supreme Court.
The state, represented by the Attorney General’s Office, argued that Edenfield glossed over the protections provided him in his brief to the high court. In particular, it noted the video shown collectively to the defendants carefully explained the right to counsel and that the defendants had the right to represent themselves, and the dangers of self-representation. It also explained the rights they would be giving up with a guilty plea.
The state also argued the “blue form” explained the various rights and the impacts of pleading guilty and waiving the right to counsel and provided that those who sign it vouch that they have “read and fully understand this plea of guilty or no contest . . . .”
When Edenfield sought to withdraw his plea, he “presented no evidence that he was not present in the courtroom when the videotape was played, no evidence that he did not hear or understand the advice given on the videotape, no evidence that he did not read or understand his waiver of counsel form, no evidence that he did not read or understand the ‘blue form,’ no evidence that he did not understand the nature of the proceedings, and no evidence that he was confused or misled in any way in entering his plea.”
A key disagreement between Edenfield and the state is the requirement in Rule 3.111 that the court make “a thorough inquiry” into the defendant’s understanding of the right to counsel and the effects if the defendant waives that right and capacity to “make a knowing and intelligent waiver” of that right.
Edenfield, represented by Jacksonville attorneys David M. Robbins and Susan Z. Cohen, argue that the thorough inquiry standard meant the county judge – separate from the videotape and explanations on the “blue form” – had to make a personal inquiry of Edenfield.
The state, however, says Rule 3.111 does not prescribe any particular form of procedure the court must use to determine that a waiver of counsel is a “knowing and intelligent waiver” or to advise the defendant of the dangers of self-representation.
“Indeed, nowhere in the rule is a one-on-one colloquy between the court and the defendant required,” said Assistant Attorney General Joshua R. Heller.
Edenfield’s lawyers assert, “A trial court must engage in a thorough inquiry into such matters as age, education, mental condition, prior experience with criminal proceedings, or any other inquiries which would assist a court in determining whether a waiver of the right to counsel is knowingly and intelligently entered, and this inquiry must appear in the record of the proceedings. . . . [A] court must engage in some questioning of the defendant’s level of comprehension regarding the waiver of the right to counsel.”
The brief also argued that state courts have consistently ruled in other criminal cases that a defendant may not be permitted to proceed pro se without an inquiry on whether the defendant understands all the implications of that decision.
The amicus filed by the ACLU and the two criminal defense bars contends that, in an effort to streamline misdemeanor cases, a system has been imposed that encourages defendants to waive their right to counsel and plead no contest or guilty. The amicus noted that the video shown to defendants awaiting first appearance advises those facing felony charges to fill out a financial affidavit if they want an attorney appointed, and that the court will assume they want a lawyer appointed. Affidavits are not provided for misdemeanor defendants, and there is no statement that the court will assume they want a lawyer.
“Following the video, the . . . judges, to varying degrees and seemingly in concert with the state, then take advantage of the uncounseled defendants to obtain as many plea bargains and close as many cases as possible throughout the day.”
Nellie King, FACDL president, said the organization is concerned that constitutional rights are taking a back seat to expediency.
“The Edenfield case exposes a court culture that has transformed arraignment from a defendant’s opportunity to obtain counsel and make the case for release pending investigation, plea negotiations or trial, to a false choice between going home following a guilty plea or obtaining counsel and delaying the case for a month,” she said. “The former is obviously more enticing, so one after another, defendants waive counsel and plead guilty or no contest.
“The concern to our members is that defendants have no idea what rights they have given up until they confront them head-on in their day-to-day lives.
“When the court’s discussion focuses on defendants entering guilty pleas as quickly as possible, and without benefit of the advice of counsel, the process is flawed. Criminal court proceedings should be guided by the tenets of the Constitution, not by budgetary concerns and docket size.”