Ruling imperils statewide DUI cases

By Jim Schoettler

The Times-Union

Thursday, January 8, 2004

It happens every day in courts around Florida: People charged with drunken driving or domestic violence represent themselves, plead guilty or no contest and get a criminal record.

But in a recent decision that one prominent attorney said could have a wide-ranging impact on past and future cases statewide, an appeals court ruled that a Jacksonville man convicted of DUI can withdraw his plea because the judge didn’t explain the dangers of representing himself.

Jacksonville attorney David Robbins, who specializes in DUI cases, predicted thousands of convictions could be impacted by the Dec. 29 ruling from the 1st District Court of Appeal. The State Attorney General’s Office plans to ask for a rehearing and can appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

Robbins represents the 55-year-old man in the DUI case heard by the appeals court.

The impact will be unclear until appeals of the ruling are exhausted, Assistant State Attorney John Guy said.

Judges routinely inform defendants en masse in their first appearance of the right to an attorney and other legal issues but most don’t go into detail about self-representation, Robbins said. That helps some judges expedite first appearance proceedings and cuts down on a backlog of court cases, he said.

Robbins said the appeals court ruling should allow for misdemeanor defendants to withdraw their pleas if they can show they weren’t warned about the ramifications of waiving their right to an attorney.

“At a minimum … any person charged with a misdemeanor in the state of Florida is now entitled to this type of inquiry any time they want to represent themselves,” Robbins said. “In my opinion, any person who has ever entered a plea to a DUI charge or domestic violence without a lawyer is eligible to have that sentence set aside because this decision will be applied retroactively.”

Guy said there is no guarantee that a person will be acquitted if his or her case is reheard. He said he suspects some people will seek to withdraw their pleas if allowed, but others won’t.

“If they’ve withstood the conviction and it doesn’t affect their future or current status, they probably won’t want to spend the time and money,” Guy said. “But you may have people who say I couldn’t get this job because of this prior conviction and now I have an opportunity to get it readdressed.”

Guy said an increased workload could be burdensome to his office, but added, “We’re the largest law firm in town.”

Chief Circuit Judge Donald Moran said the ruling may require some procedural changes, such as a clearer explanation to people about the dangers of not having a lawyer. Moran said convictions would have to be reviewed individually, but he disagreed with Robbins over the ruling’s significance.

“It isn’t a landmark case in the sense that it changes the law,” Moran said. “We will carefully look at this case and make some changes in order to better emphasize” the possible consequences of self-representation.

Circuit Judge Brian Davis, whose decision to uphold a county judge’s ruling was overturned in the appeal, declined to say whether he agreed with the ruling. He said no harm would be done “if it underscores the right for people to understand fully the procedures and consequences of court proceedings.”

The ruling involved Van Allen Case, who decided to represent himself in his first appearance before a judge after being charged with drunken driving in 2001. Case pleaded no contest, signed a form acknowledging his waiver of rights and got a six-month suspension of his license and probation.

Case later hired Robbins and sought to have his plea withdrawn because he said he didn’t understand the punishment he faced. County Judge Brent Shore and Davis rejected the appeal. One argument was that Case was not entitled to counsel or a further explanation of his rights. The appeals court disagreed.

Robbins said Case will seek to withdraw his plea, but no date has been set.

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