Miami-Dade County Police arrested Lazaro Rodriguez before dawn December 15, 2015, for allegedly arguing with cops and "stiffening his body" during a routine traffic stop. That move apparently frightened the officers enough to arrest the North Miami resident on misdemeanor charges of resisting an officer without violence and one felony count of threatening a public servant.
But when the Spanish-speaking Rodriguez appeared in court with a public defender, Miami-Dade County Judge Andrew Hague told Rodriguez that the state wasn't seeking to jail him — and because prosecutors simply wanted to issue him a fine, Hague used an obscure legal maneuver to dismiss Rodriguez's lawyer, leaving the man to defend himself with no knowledge of the English language, let alone criminal law.
Hague is one of a multitude of Florida judges who use the little-known legal trick to push indigent defendants through an "assembly line" of justice in an attempt to help prosecutors easily score convictions against literally defenseless people — or so says the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit yesterday against Hague, County Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin, and Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Richard Swearingen.
Jackie Azis, a Florida ACLU lawyer working on the case, says the organization didn't have hard statistics on how often the move is used to strip public defenders from the accused. But she says Hague routinely employs the practice to score quick plea deals from people who can't defend themselves.
"This case was particularly disturbing to us," she says. "Often when someone’s counsel is removed, that person generally takes a plea offer and moves on. But if you hear the trial or see the transcript, you can see what a disaster it was. Rodriguez needed an interpreter. From the very beginning, things weren’t explained to him properly. Definitely, in Mr. Rodriguez’s case, this was more of an injustice than most."
She says that in some instances, there are worse punishments than simple jail time. A person who's railroaded through the justice system could still face employment consequences, unnecessary fines, loss of public benefits like food stamps or welfare, or, in cases involving immigrants, deportation.
An assistant in Hague's judicial chambers said it was too close to 5 p.m. yesterday for the judge to comment on the lawsuit.
According to the complaint, Rodriguez's public defender had been working diligently for weeks on his case right until prosecutors dropped the felony charge and one of the misdemeanors, announced they were not seeking jail time, and — under Hague's order — dismissed Rodriguez's public defender.
If Rodriguez had representation, his lawyer would have just continued working to defend him against the remaining charge, but Rodriguez couldn't afford to replace his public defender. Instead, the ACLU says, he was left to defend himself in April, which led to chaos in court as he struggled to comprehend basic English-language terms through a translator.
The ACLU claims that when Hague asked him to give up his right to a jury trial and instead let the judge rule on the case himself, Rodriguez had no clue what was going on. The transcript seems to bear this out: After Hague asked if the defendant was willing to sign away his right to a jury, Rodriguez nonsensically responded, “I don’t need a jury in front of you." Hague let Rodriguez sign his rights away anyway.
As the case proceeded, Rodriguez quickly found himself outgunned: The state dismissed witnesses Rodriguez thought would exonerate him, but he allegedly had no idea how to call those witnesses back to testify. Rodriguez says he was simply "stiffening his body" in order to fix his pants, which had fallen down during the stop.
"Rodriguez actually had a good defense, but he wasn’t able to articulate it," Azis says. "The cops said they felt he was pulling away from them, but he said he was just pulling his pants up. The prosecutor objected and claimed that was irrelevant, and the judge agreed. Of course that wasn't irrelevant — it was central to the entire case — but Mr. Rodriguez didn’t know how to fight the objection."
In the end, Rodriguez was unable to persuade Hague of his innocence, and the judge found him guilty. He was issued a $358 fine and ordered to stay away from the cops. Rodriguez said no one told him he could appeal the case. The ACLU is now asking the state to overturn his conviction and claims the trial violated the Sixth and 14th Amendments.
The ACLU argues that the entire practice, which is technically legal in Florida, works to feed people through the criminal-justice system like cattle: If defendants don't have lawyers, prosecutors can easily rack up low-level convictions and make themselves look good. The ACLU argues the practice is unconstitutional because people who can afford private attorneys aren't subject to the same treatment under the law.
"This is a clear case of wealth-based injustice that feeds the assembly line of convictions," the ACLU wrote online yesterday, adding later: "Rodriguez’s uncounseled conviction and sentence is a fate that only befalls the indigent, and it is unconstitutional."
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