What Happens if a Defendant is Violent with the Defense Counsel?

April 24, 2023 Criminal Defense

If a defendant is violent or aggressive towards an attorney during a criminal case in Florida, the court may take specific actions to protect the safety of the attorney along with the rest of the courtroom. This can involve removing the defendant and placing them in custody until the issue can be resolved.

However, in more serious cases the defendant may be facing additional criminal charges for any violent behavior toward a lawyer. Possible charges can include assault, battery, or even attempted murder, depending on the details surrounding the case.

The defendant may also face consequences such as being held in contempt of court, or getting their bail offer revoked. In some extreme cases, the defendant may be deemed unfit to stand trial due to their violent behavior. The defendants in this scenario may be required to undergo a mental health evaluation prior to proceeding with the case.

This article will provide information on defining the defense counsel, along with details about a Florida bill set out to protect attorneys from violence.

Who is the Counsel?

The following lists the various roles in a criminal case:

  • Public Defender – Attorney(s) who provide legal representation to individuals who cannot otherwise afford a private attorney. The court will typically appoint a public defender to represent defendants who are facing criminal charges. A public defender has the role of protecting the client’s rights, negotiating with prosecutors, and presenting their argument in court.
  • Defense Counsel – Attorney(s) who represents the defendant in the case. The role of the defense counsel is to ensure the client’s rights are protected and to present arguments and evidence to challenge the prosecution team’s case. The defense counsel can assist the defendant by negotiating plea deals or providing the defendant guidance. The defense counsel is typically hired by the defendant or appointed by the court.
  • State Attorney – Prosecutor(s) in a criminal case who represents the state or government who has the case against the defendant. The State Attorney is responsible for prosecuting the criminal case on behalf of the state, by presenting both evidence and arguments to convince the judge and jury of the defendant’s guilt.

SB 384

Florida Legislature is just one signature away from signing SB 384 into law. The proposed bill is being sponsored by Sen. Jennifer Bradley. The new bill aims to add extra protection to the legal counsel in a criminal case by making it a felony offense to attack a defense attorney or public defender in Florida.

The bill was introduced after Gainesville defense attorney Eric Atria was violently attacked by a client during trial, which led to him receiving a fracture to his skull.

“I’ve never done anything like this before,” Atria said prior to the Senate hearing. “Defense counsel praises themselves as defenders of the Constitution and makes sure the power of the state is in check…we get up on that high horse and justifiably so to almost lose sight of the fact that we can take the position that they can’t hit us.”

During the House Judiciary Committee meeting on March 14th, companion bill sponsor Rep. Patt Maney claimed that treating defense attorneys like prosecutors should also be a matter of recruitment and retention.

“Why should you take a job, one job over another one, if you’re protected and one if you’re not protected?” Maney questioned.

SB 384 passed through the Senate by a unanimous 40-0 vote. During the House vote on April 13th, Rep. Mike Gottlieb, who had previously voted against the bill on two other occasions, changed his mind due to witnessing the video footage from Atria’s attack. Gottlieb’s switched vote passed the measure unanimously.

If Gov. Ron DeSantis signs SB 384 into law, it will amend Florida Statute Section 775.0823 to specify penalties for violent offenses committed against specified justice system personnel. Under the newly amended law, there is an increase and certainty of penalty for any person who is convicted of a violent offense against any public defender, court-appointed counsel, or defense attorney in a criminal proceeding.

To review the bill text in full and to review the specific sentencing, you can do so here.

Statistics on Violence Towards Attorneys

Violence against attorneys by clients or other parties is a serious issue and can have significant consequences for both the attorney and the perpetrator.

according to a 2016 survey conducted by the American Bar Association, approximately 19% of responding attorneys reported that they had experienced some form of threatening or intimidating behavior from a client or someone else in the past 12 months. The survey also found that solo and small firm attorneys were more likely to experience such behavior than attorneys in larger firms.

The Florida Bar Association, which regulates and oversees the practice of law in Florida, has resources available for attorneys to help them identify and respond to potential threats, including violence. If an attorney experiences violence or feels threatened by a client or anyone else, they should take appropriate steps to protect themselves, such as notifying law enforcement and seeking assistance from the Florida Bar Association or other relevant organizations.

Example Case

March 2019 – Defendant William Green received additional battery charges after hitting a public defender during his bond hearing. According to the report, Julie Chase, the assistant public defender, was punched in the head unexpectedly by Green.

Green, Chase, and a crowd of defendants were gathered in the Broward County Courthouse to discuss the possibility of bond for the defendants. Green, who was already facing battery charges for allegedly attacking a mental health facility employee, jumped out of his seat in the courtroom to sucker punch Chase.

The sudden attack baffled the judge and the other defendants in the room. “What happened?” Broward Judge Jackie Powell asked as the court bailiffs tackled Green.

Chase was taken to a nearby hospital for evaluation, which she made a full recovery from. She claimed the incident was “a bit of a shock” but is otherwise doing okay. Green was then charged with an additional battery offense.

Howard Finkelstein, a Broward public defender, claimed that Green appeared to be suffering from mental illness. “In my 40 years this is the first time one of my attorneys has been attacked,” Finkelstein said in a statement. “This has a chilling effect on my team because we are committed to our work. This is not part of the job description.”

The following is a statement from Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony regarding the safety of legal hearings:

“BSO has received numerous requests from the public defender’s office asking for a more lax approach to our security procedures during magistrate hearings. Although I understand their concern that having deputies standing close to the inmates or having them wear handcuffs or shackles could imply guilt, they must in turn understand that their requests made it possible for this unusual situation to occur… As the senior ranking law enforcement official for Broward County, I am obliged to ensure all policies related to the protection and safety of our court officials are enforced. Effective immediately, all inmates will be handcuffed during these proceedings as to reduce the ability of an inmate to cause similar harm or greater.”

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

Any violent behavior towards an attorney during a criminal case is taken very seriously by the Florida court system. When dealing with a criminal charge, the defense counsel is there to help you navigate the legal world, defend your case, and fight for your freedom. Acting violently towards an attorney can hinder your case, and in the most severe cases result in additional charges against you.

If you or a loved one need criminal defense, contact Don Pumphrey and his team. Our attorneys have years of experience representing Floridians accused of a crime. We will stand in your corner and fight for you from beginning to end. Contact Pumphrey Law Firm today at (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message on our website for a free consultation regarding your case.

Written by Karissa Key

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