Courts

Miami-Dade defense lawyers filed objections to new pay system

 

The new rule creates flat fees for private defense attorneys who are appointed to represent poor defendants.

dovalle@MiamiHerald.com

A new system aimed at limiting fees paid to court-appointed lawyers violates the U.S. Constitution and means poor defendants will get only “token representation” by underqualified and overwhelmed lawyers, according to legal actions filed Monday,

The Miami branch of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed an official objection and a request to the state’s Supreme Court trying to halt the “Limited Registry,” a new system passed by lawmakers and set to begin July 1.

The new law creates a voluntary pool of lawyers who get first crack at receiving clients who, because of ethical conflicts, cannot be represented by the Public Defender’s Office or a second state-funded defense firm.

Right now, private lawyers who represent indigent clients can earn up to $75 an hour on time-consuming criminal cases.

But lawyers in the new pool will only receive a flat rate of between $750 to $2,500 on cases depending on the degree of the felony — with no chance to earn more money. A complex murder case takes hundreds of hours to prepare for trial, for example, might net a lawyer less than six dollars an hour.

The result, according to the lawyer’s group: some cash-strapped lawyers will sign up but devote little time to preparing for a trial, instead working out quick plea deals to close the cases.

“A client should never have to hope that the conscience of his or her court-appointed attorney would outweigh the severe financial restraints imposed by the legislature,” according to an administrative objection filed to Miami-Dade’s chief judge, Joel Brown.

The “Limited Registry” does not apply to death penalty and racketeering cases. If no one signs up, the same pool of about 150 Miami-Dade lawyers who take court appointments now will get the cases under the old rates.

The association also is asking Miami-Dade’s Circuit Court to delay implementing the system until the group’s legal objection is heard in court. The association is also asking the Florida Supreme Court to strike down the judicial order creating the new system.

The legal actions were filed on behalf of three criminal defense lawyers who take court-appointed cases: David S. Markus, Amy Agnoli and Roy Wasson.

“The Sixth Amendment is one of the linchpins of our criminal justice system and it does not differentiate by the size of your pocketbook,” said Jude M. Faccidomo, president of the criminal defense lawyers association. “Everyone is entitled to effective representation.”

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