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Friday, February 13, 2009

BREAKING NEWS:Administrative Error Leads to Hundreds of Police Officers Being Named as Accused Felons on Court Computers

Administrative Snafu Wrongly Names Cops as Criminal Defendants

by Norm Kent

The stated purpose in founding this blog was to do some legal perspective on the news, from a criminal defense attorney’s standpoint. But today this criminal defense attorney is standing up for anyone in this county that has ever been a cop or worn a badge. They have been royally screwed by an administrative process in the clerk’s office which may be an absolute nightmare to cure.

In a nutshell, the problem is this: whenever a law enforcement officer has missed a deposition and had a Rule to Show Cause issued against him, the Clerk of the Courts has opened a new public file naming the officer as a criminal defendant on a ‘Contempt of Court’ charge. Hundreds of police officers, if not thousands, are probably impacted for the past god-knows-how-many-years.

The only good news I can share immediately is that the problem has recently been brought to the attention of Chief Judge Victor Tobin, who is furious about the situation, and he has initiated steps to fix it. In fact, everyone who has been notified about the problem appears to be on the same page, working towards a resolution. Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Franklin Adderly has also vowed to insure the officers in his department are protected as well. But the problem is so extensive it may take months to pour through the system just to find out how many officers across the county are so affected.

Here are the facts about how this came to everyone’s attention. The Fort Lauderdale Police Department was conducting an investigation which revealed to them that a number of officers were coming up in the clerk’s computer with pending felony charges against them.

When the division inquired further, they discovered these charges were ‘contempt of court’ allegations and evolved after an officer had for one reason or another, failed to appear for a subpoenaed deposition. Many times, as lawyers know, the failure is due to routine rescheduling or inadvertent error. Many times, it is simply corrected by scheduling a new date. But in any of those instances, where a ‘Rule to Show Cause’ for failure to appear was issued by the defense counsel, the Clerk opened a new criminal file charging the officer with ‘Contempt of Court.’

The first thing that strikes me as more than a clerical error but a major mistake by the Clerk’s office is naming the officers who missed depositions as defendants in a criminal case. At the very most, the failure to appear for a deposition would lead to a sanction for indirect civil contempt. Thus, the case was never a ‘criminal’ one to begin with.

Not to make an example of anyone in particular, but if you were to examine Fort Lauderdale Detective William Harder’s name on the clerk’s system, you would discover two separate felony charges are posted against him. Each are for contempt of court, and both have been dismissed. One in fact is from 2006, but both are still immediately accessible as a public record to anyone anywhere. I can only guess how many other officers are similarly compromised.

Sgt. Riche of Fort Lauderdale was one who tried to lift his name. Hasn’t happened. He has run into the wall of bureaucracy. Welcome to the system. Step on down.

The Chief Judge has properly requested the Clerk take immediate and affirmative steps to resolve the problem. Judge Tobin has correctly concluded that the problem is widespread.

The cures which are being discussed necessitate the Chief Judge issuing a directive barring the opening of future criminal files against police officers, who at the very most would be facing indirect civil contempt for failing to show at a deposition.

Secondly, the Chief Judge needs to enter an order directing the Clerk of Courts to purge any and all such files now pending. This could be an exhaustive process, but hopefully the IT people at the clerk’s office have some management skills to segregate out the entire panoply of cases where persons are charged with contempt of court.

Another mechanism which could be employed to assist the officer so affected is to have the police legal unit from every agency file petitions to seal for every officer so charged. This would remove the charges from the public record, but given how long this has been going on, that process may be cumbersome and unmanageable. We would need to be assured that it was possible to retrieve the name of every officer so impacted.

In fact, when first advised of this debacle, a deputy clerk suggested that in each case it would require the officer filing a petition to seal the public record. That answer does not satisfy Judge Tobin, nor should it satisfy the public or the police. The clerk needs to expedite an alternative process to undo this mess.

I would almost encourage every police officer in the county who has ever missed a deposition anytime in the past 20 years to run their name on the system to see if they are listed, then go tell your union rep. On behalf of Fort Lauderdale, their legal advisor is already in the mix to get a resolution. The Sheriff does not even know about it yet. The situation is just unfolding. It is an outrage.

Chief Judge Tobin will not stand for this. Nor should any officer or their union reps. It seems to me that the onus is now upon the Clerk’s office to make this a major priority, cure their past errors, and insure going forward from here the process does not recur.
There is no intent in this column to disparage the Clerk's office or anyone working there for this particular situation. There is enough there to talk about not related to this. What was done, was done, and it was not a conspiratorial plan to harm anyone. It just needs to be corrected from this day forth. Still, that may be too slow for the policeman explaining to a mortgage loan officer that he really does not have a felony pending.

In the meantime, there is one thing I would advise every cop who gets a subpoena for a deposition. Think a second time before missing it. And if you have missed one, you better go online and see for yourself if you are joining the guy you arrested as a named felony defendant.
You can access the clerk's public records at


  1. I can fix this quick. What we do is have the Chief Judge issue a rule to show cause against the Head Clerk, and then some clerk opens up a file naming that clerk as a criminal defendant charged with contempt of court. Watch how soon all those files then get deleted.
    Seriously, though if this were not Broward, it might be funny. Here it can be expected. Good story, though.

  2. I am a cop in Plantation. I can tell you that we are not going to take this quietly. My thought is we give the clerk a week and then we all sue their derrieres off.....

  3. Everyone at Yolo was just talking about this article. It is a very revealing piece. I have no idea why the jerks at jaablog would even attempt to insult norm for writing it. My guess is they are jealous children. I hope the problem does not get fixed right away. Can you imagine next week if a cop is on the stand and does not know about one of these felony charges pending against him and then the defense lawyer who does says 'have you ever been charged with a crime,' the cop says 'no', the lawyer impeaches him, and the judge gives an instruction on credibility of witnesses. I love it.

  4. The clerk will probably fix this before too long. But in the meantime, I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot more cops showing up for their depos. That will be a refreshing change.

  5. My ex wife was a cop.
    If I knew this instead of divorcing her, I just would issue her rules to show cause .

  6. Correct me if I am wrong, but isn't it the JUDGES who issue the charge of contempt??? And if being in contempt is a charge, then it seems like the Clerk's Office is just doing it's job. Maybe the Judge's could be a bit more lenient on our hard working officers?? I think that since Vic is not getting his way with the courtroom, he is looking for any way to lash out at the Clerk who is well liked and does a great job. Maybe Vic could learn some better "people skills" from Howard.

  7. To 813, you've got it part right and part wrong. When a lawyer files a Motion for a Rule to Show Cause, it is not a Contempt Charge by a judge. It's just a Motion. If the Court GRANTS the rule, the police officer has to show up to his/her deposition by a specific date or time, and if the officer fails to do so, the officer must then show up in Court to Show Cause as to why he/she should not be held in contempt. No criminal charge whatsoever -- and certainly no charge when the Motion for a Rule is filed in the first place.

  8. This has absolutely nothing to do with Vic's dispute with the clerk this year, this week over some supposed use of a courtroom. And Norm Kent has absolutely no dog in that fight. Man, the dude just pointed out a flaw in the system which provided for us to erroneously name cops as criminal defendants on felony charges, and he is right, it reeks, it is unfair, and it should be corrected. Period, end of story.

  9. This kinda flips me out as a cop. How do I know that I wasn't turned down on a credit card or a loan cause my name showed up as a felon on a credit check. No one would have had a clue why the charge was there or that it solely existed for a deposition. This really sucks and I hope someone does something soon.

  10. I do not see how having the charge would affect your ability to get a loan.....

  11. the point is that the internet is accessible to anyone and everyone. If I am a cop I don't want my name and home address there for anyone to capture. I don't want to have to explain if I apply for a job somewhere else or if someone runs a background check on me how there is a felony record pending. Even if I am not a cop. I saw one kid with a pot charge pending denied admission into a vocational school. You just don't need that crap in your personal life.

  12. I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot more cops showing up for their depos. That will be a refreshing change.

    I think you got that backward. Stop abusing subpeonas and then not show up. Depos should be eliminated.