Miami-Dade County

Lawsuit: Poor defendants left to represent themselves after judge takes away lawyers

It all started with a speeding ticket.

It was the day before Lazaro Rodriguez’s 55th birthday, and what began with an ordinary citation escalated into an arrest after Rodriguez, bickered with Miami police and was charged with threatening and resisting an officer.

Though Rodriguez, a non-English speaker, was appointed legal representation, Miami-Dade Criminal Court Judge Andrew Hague removed his public defender after the prosecution dropped the felony charge, dropped one of two misdemeanor charges, and decided not to pursue jail time.

Hague’s move didn’t sit well with the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Florida, sparking them to file a lawsuit Thursday, challenging the removal of public defenders from ongoing criminal cases in Miami-Dade County.

“Miami-Dade Criminal Court Judge Andrew Hague dismisses these attorneys when prosecutors tell him they have decided not to seek jail time, leaving poor defendants with no option but to represent themselves,” said the ACLU in a statement Thursday. “This practice, which doesn’t affect defendants who can afford private attorneys, violates the sixth and fourteenth amendments.”

Under Florida law, the prosecution’s decision not to pursue jail time allowed the judge to remove his legal representation.

A spokesperson for the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida said she could not comment Thursday afternoon.

“Imagine facing a criminal charge without any legal help—it’s just you against a prosecutor working closely with the police to build a case against you. In Miami-Dade County, Judge Andrew Hague routinely traps poor people in that nightmare,” said Brandon Buskey, a senior attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “The judge forces defendants to represent themselves against criminal charges, indifferent to the fact that their futures are on the line.”

The ACLU says Rodriguez, now 58, relied on a court interpreter because Spanish is his first language, causing him to defend himself at trial.

Rodriguez was unable to cross-examine the police officers who arrested him or respond effectively to objections from the prosecutor. The judge found him guilty and fined him $358 in court costs, according to the lawsuit, which noted that Rodriguez was not told that he had a right to appeal.

The ACLU lawsuit would require the defendants—Judge Hague; Harvey Ruvin, Clerk of the Courts for Miami-Dade County; and Richard Swearingen, Commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement— to invalidate Rodriguez’s conviction and retry him only if they provide him with a public defender.

“When Judge Hague took away Lazaro Rodriguez’s attorney, he robbed him of his chance for a fair trial,” said Jackie Azis, an attorney with the ACLU of Florida. “The 90-minute trial Mr. Rodriguez endured was hopelessly muddled — he was at a severe disadvantage as a layperson who doesn’t know court rules and as a Spanish speaker who must communicate about complex legal questions through an interpreter. The result was a sham.”

Monique O. Madan: 305-376-2108, @MoniqueOMadan