Overworked, Underfunded Miami Public Defenders Turn To Rich Law Firms For Help

Inside a stuffy, overcrowded Miami-Dade misdemeanor court, a 13-year-old boy clad in an orange jumpsuit watches in awe as his lawyer artfully demands that the judge toss evidence the prosecution has against the teenager.

On most days, Ben Reiss of the prestigious Greenberg Traurig firm defends commercial companies in cases with such high stakes they almost always settle out of court.

Today, he's fighting tooth and nail for an impoverished city kid, filing a motion to toss the improperly gathered evidence that's led to a piddling marijuana possession charge.

"The look on his face, when he realized that someone was fighting for him and when he saw the judge agree and toss the charge ... it was like he believed in justice again," Reiss said later in an interview. "It was beautiful."

So how exactly did a high-priced corporate lawyer end up defending an indigent minor on a drug charge?

It's the latest idea from Miami-Dade's massively over-worked and under-funded Public Defenders Office.

Public Defender Carlos J. Martinez -- whose 183 lawyers are hundreds of cases over their limits thanks to statewide budget cuts -- has stopped accepting new 3rd degree felony cases, which could force the state to assign private attorneys to represent those clients. He's still waiting for a circuit court, which heard his case last week, to decide whether that move is legal.

But in the meantime, his plan to pull white-shoe civil law firms into pro bono misdemeanor cases has already born some fruit. About two dozen civil lawyers have trained to represent clients who can't afford attorneys since Martinez put out the call for help in January, says Robert Coppel, the PD's director of training and professionalism.

"A lot of them want the chance to litigate a criminal case in court, because they don't get to do that on a daily basis," Coppel says.

That's what drew in Lisa Pisciotta, an attorney at Hughes, Hubbard and Reed who's working on her first ever criminal case -- a DUI.

"Our cases are generally worth so much money that they frequently don't go to trial at all," Pisciotta says. "And when they do, a very experience partner usually handles the trial. So this is a great experience for me."

Poor defendants, meanwhile, get all the energy the Reisses and Pisciattas of the world normally pour into keeping their deep-pocketed corporate clients out of trouble.

After the judge accepted Reiss' motion to throw out the evidence against his 13-year-old client, the state attorney's office dropped all the charges, Reiss says. Along with some other attorneys from his office, he's already working on five new cases for the public defender's office.

"If we can take some cases off their hands so they have more time for their felony caseload, that's great," Reiss says. "But we really relish the opportunity to work on these cases in the first place."

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