First Appearances

07/09/2008 - L.D. Murrell, P.A. - Link to This Entry

June was an important month for decisions regarding First Appearances.

In Florida, state law requires a defendant to be brought before a judge within twenty-four hours of his/her arrest. The Florida rules also require the Court to appoint a lawyer for the accused if he cannot afford his own lawyer. The judge is then supposed to review the arrest affidavit and make certain the police had sufficient legal reason to make the arrest (probable cause) and set a reasonable bond. Most other jurisdictions (including federal courts) have a similar rule.

Despite the clear requirements of Florida law, in many areas around the State, Public Defenders and State Attorneys were not attending First Appearances—especially on weekends and holidays. As a result, indigent defendants were not being adequately represented at First Appearances. They had no lawyer to challenge the legality of their arrest or to ask for a reduced bond. Judges would refuse to consider bond reduction motions for clients who did have lawyers on the grounds that they needed to hear from the State Attorney before deciding on bond.

In 2007, to address the issue, I proposed an amendment to the Rules of Criminal Procedure to require the State Attorney and Public Defenders to attend all First Appearances. On June 20, 2008, the Rules Committee passed the amendment by a vote of 28-0. (It is gratifying to note the committee is comprised of Judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers.) The Rule must now be adopted by the Florida Supreme Court.

Adoption of the rule by the Florida Supreme Court appears almost certain due to a United States Supreme Court ruling that came out just three days later. On June 23, 2008, the Supreme Court decided
Rothgery v. Gillespie County, Texas, 2008 WL 2484864 (June 23, 2008). In that case the Court ruled that a county’s failure to provide court-appointed counsel to an indigent defendant at first appearance could give rise to a lawsuit for damages. In other words, the county could be sued for failing to provide an attorney at first appearance.

These two developments are very important for defendants at first appearance. Together they should insure that the rights guaranteed defendants by our rules of procedure are protected.