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Internet activist Aaron Swartz was facing federal felony charges carrying the threat of 35 years behind bars when he committed suicide last month, sending shock waves throughout the country and prompting a discourse about the blatant abuse of power among many prosecutors. gavel3.jpg

Our Palm Beach County criminal defense attorneys are saddened that it took this tragedy to force the discussion on a national scale. It’s truly overdue.

Swartz, 26, was accused of heisting academic and scholarly records, which otherwise would have been available for download for a nominal fee. For this, prosecutors charged him with the highest possible felonies, with several of their interpretations being a significant stretch of the law.

We wish we could say that this kind of thing is rare. It used to be, as judges tended to immediately recognize this “stacking” approach as an overreach and take prosecutors to task for it. No more. It’s now the norm.

The fact is, many prosecutors don’t want to go to trial. It’s expensive and time-consuming. Stacking is their way of forcing a defendant’s hand. First, they pile up all the most serious charges, even if they know some of them won’t hold up in court. They then use that – and all the potential jail time that could be incurred if one gambles their chances at a trial – to strong-arm defendants into pleading guilty to lesser charges ahead of the trial.

Defendants often feel they have no choice, and far too many defense attorneys fail to fight back. It’s why only 5 percent of cases ever make it to the jury trial stage.

In the wake of Swartz’s death, legal scholars have been tossing out theories about how to address this problem. Some have proposed a law that would bar prosecutors from filing a dozen overlapping charges when there is really only evidence the defendant may have committed one or two. Others are gunning to make prosecutors’ offices responsible to cover legal fees when individuals are found not guilty or the charges are dropped. Still others say judges should be given a greater amount of oversight to serve as a check-and-balance to prosecutorial powers.

Another part of this discussion involves that 5 percent figure we mentioned earlier. By funneling most criminal cases into the plea bargaining process, we’ve effectively removed the balance that a jury of one’s peers provides. At the end of the day, the prosecutor has a stake in the outcome. Jurors do not. The fact that they are impartial and stand to gain nothing is a powerful check to prosecutors’ power – and one that is used far too rarely.

Of course there are risks involved with taking your case before a jury, and your attorney should work to carefully weigh those with you. But it’s worth noting in the course of the national debate that prosecutors have largely removed this vital element from our criminal justice system – to their own benefit.

This is more than a marginal troubling trend. This is indicative of a justice system that has lost its way. The cards are stacked against you and the stakes are high. When you find yourself caught up, your best chance for emerging unscathed is to hire a criminal defense lawyer with extensive, proven experience.
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Incidents of Florida hit-and-runs are fast increasing, according the Florida Highway Patrol, which has kicked off an awareness campaign enlisting statewide media. steeringwheel1.jpg

Our Broward hit-and-run defense attorneys know that the charge is a gravely serious one that, per Florida Statute 316.062 and Florida Statute 316.027 can be punished with anything from a non-criminal traffic violations (in instances with minimal damage and no injury) all the way up to a first-degree felony, punishable by life in prison (in instances involving death). It is absolutely critical in these cases for individuals to seek the counsel of an experienced traffic defense lawyer. If you can do so prior to your arrest, even better. The earlier we can get started on a case, the better our chances of a favorable outcome.

The state highway patrol is reporting that last year, Broward ranked No. 2 in the state for hit-and-run crashes, tallying a total of nearly 7,860, representing an 8 percent increase from the year before.

It follows just behind Miami-Dade County, which ranked No. 1 – and that was even with a 15 percent annual decrease in 2012. Last year, the county racked up nearly 12,815 hit-and-run crashes, while the previous year there were about 15,230.

Combined, these two counties comprised about 30 percent of the statewide total hit-and-runs, which neared 70,000 last year.

Palm Beach County did not rank among the top five, but authorities there tabulated a slight increase too, from about 3,370 in 2011 up to 3,380 in 2012.

The number of fatalities in these instances climbed as well, albeit slightly. There were 168 hit-and-run deaths counted in Florida last year, compared to 162 in 2011. Another 17,000 people were injured. Among those, three-fifths were pedestrians.

In many of cases involving pedestrian hit-and-runs, we know that drivers simply may not have realized that the object they struck was a person, particularly if the scene was dark and the individual was wearing dark clothing.

Some survivor families express anger that in some cases, it doesn’t seem as if the driver even made an attempt to stop, noting the absence of skid marks at the scenes. But that just further supports the position that in many cases, drivers simply don’t know they’ve hit someone. It won’t always completely absolve the driver of blame in the case, but it can go a long way toward reducing the penalties.

Additionally, if the individual struck was intoxicated at the time or acting illegally (such as improperly crossing the roadway), that can also serve to bolster your defense.

Drivers may also make the split-second call to flee if they are impaired or don’t have a license or insurance or are an illegal immigrant.

In Florida, drivers have a statutory duty to give information and render aid, regardless of whether anyone was injured. No matter what your situation, we are committed to helping you fight the charges.
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Early this month, the headline from The New York Time’s Sunday editorial page blared, “Why Police Lie Under Oath.” The article made the case that officers are not just sometimes dishonest, but routinely so and in fact have incentives for lying. stampoffinger1.jpg

Our Fort Lauderdale Criminal defense attorneys found it interesting that the very next day, an extensive investigation into Florida law enforcement misconduct – and lack of discipline for it – was published in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Meanwhile, the Sun Sentinel was in the midst of covering the opening of a trial for a police officer charged with four felonies and four misdemeanors connected to accusations that he falsified public records in order to cover up an unjustified car chase.

It’s worth underscoring the prevalence and potential reasons behind it to drive home this point: Your defense attorney has ample reason to carefully scrutinize the account of the officers involved in your case. When the facts don’t add up – judges and juries need to hear it.

Even if the lies of an officer or team of officers are mere slight exaggeration or when they involve other cases, they can’t be overlooked. An officer who displays a willingness to “fudge the truth” inevitably casts a long shadow of doubt on his credibility.

Unfortunately, even though law enforcement authorities have proven time and again to be untrustworthy, prosecutors, juries and judges tend to give their word a great deal of credence. So when it is your word against theirs, any opportunity to find weakness or flaws or outright lies in their testimony needs to be fully explored.

Author Michelle Alexander writes in her New York Times’ piece that the testimony of a police officer shouldn’t be given any more weight than any other witness. In fact, there is a fair amount of evidence that he or she should be given less so – especially in drug cases.

Alexander admits that may seem a harsh line, but those within the field have been even harsher. Former San Francisco Police Commissioner Peter Keane recently wrote an editorial for the local newspaper there saying that police officer perjury in justifying illegal drug searches is “commonplace.” In New York City, a State Supreme Court Justice admonished the “widespread culture of lying and corruption” in the police department’s narcotics units.

Alexander goes on to point out that there are usually federal financial incentives tied to arrest rolls – particularly in drug units – meaning agencies have a compelling reason to make as many arrests as possible, regardless of whether the facts will actually stand up in court. And many times, even false testimony of officers’ does stand up in court because either nobody steps up to challenge it or the defense attorney is only concerned with working out a plea deal, rather than vigorously fighting the charge.

In Florida, the Herald-Tribune found countless incidents over the last 12 months in which officers in the Sunshine state lied under oath, cheated on exams or were arrested for criminal offenses. Almost every time, he or she returned to work.

In Fort Lauderdale, two detectives were accused of conspiring to cover up a high-speed chase involving an unmarked car and a reportedly non-violent burglary suspect. The chase ended with the suspect crashing his vehicle on North Rio Vista Boulevard. Officers testified that they witnessed the suspect’s car slamming into the undercover vehicle and then intentionally ramming it head-on. The accident reconstruction team, however, found a different story entirely. Still, it took the suspect’s family two years of fighting to get anyone to investigate the matter.

Our Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers are committed to uncovering any and all evidence of deceit or inaccuracies on the part of law enforcement in your case.
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Two women – one of them the wife of a police officer – were arrested for allegedly running a prostitution ring in Boca Raton. eyesdontsaylies.jpg

Palm Beach County criminal defense attorneys understand this was not a typical operation. There were no women trolling strips or waving down potential johns from the sidewalk. It wasn’t as high-end as some of the escort services you might find in Miami or Las Vegas either. Rather, it something in the middle.

Investigators say the two women who acted as madams to at least six escorts also prostituted themselves on occasion. Authorities say the pair made hundreds of thousands of dollars, with one owning a six-bedroom house in a gated community.

They are both now facing charges of money laundering and procuring prostitutes, but they evaded human trafficking charges because investigators said there was no evidence any of those who worked for the pair were doing so against their will. This was despite the fact that one of the women who worked for the two told investigators she had been forced into it.

The five-month investigation, involving city police, state police and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, was sparked by the detention of one of the escorts on an immigration violation. While she was in custody, she told immigration officials that she was forced into working as a prostitute over a period of nine months. She said she flew in from Brazil in the late summer of 2011, and was introduced to the two alleged madams, who were also Brazilian.

They reportedly offered a job and told her she needn’t engage in sexual intercourse with clients. The woman agreed, but when the two leaders of the operation learned she had no passport and was in the country illegally, they reportedly began to threaten that if she did not have sex with the male clients, they would turn her into immigration authorities.

It’s not clear whether the woman’s claims were verified or whether the others involved told similar stories. What we do know is that such allegations will likely become more frequent, even when those participating were doing so willingly. That’s because while willingly acting as a prostitute will get you a misdemeanor with a maximum one-year jail term, young persons deemed to be trafficking victims are exempt from prosecution and eligible for a host of services under the newly-implemented Safe Harbor Act, which went into effect Jan. 1 of this year.

Additionally, House Bill 7049, which went into effect last summer, not only boosted the authorization for wiretapping and in these cases, it increased the penalties for persons convicted of human trafficking. Specifically, the measure:
–Added various new human trafficking offenses to the list of offenses that qualify a person as a predator or sexual offender for registration purposes;
–Makes a number of human trafficking offenses first-degree felonies, punishable by up to life in prison;
–Makes human smuggling a third-degree felony, rather than a first-degree misdemeanor, which increased the maximum punishment from 1 year to 5 years.
–Makes it an increased offense if the alleged victim is under the age of 15.

In the case, none of this appears to have been at issue – though it’s unsurprising that such an allegation was made.
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The New York Civil Liberties Union is offering a free “Stop and Frisk Watch App” for both iPhone and Android users in order to hold police agencies accountable for potentially unlawful stops and searches. samsungmobile.jpg

Our Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers believe this is an excellent aid in communities where individuals may feel weak in the face of police harassment. The app alerts users to wear a police stop may be happening, allows video recording of the incident and once recording is complete, prompts users to take a detailed survey about what just occurred. There is even an entire “know your rights” section that informs people about what to do when confronted by police and also details your right to film a public police encounter.

Primarily, though, this is going to be a service to be used by bystanders – not the person who is being stopped – although such recordings could have great value in the criminal case if the person is later arrested.

The biggest reason the issue is making news in New York is because of a common practice by officers there to “stop and frisk” those passing near certain buildings in the Bronx. This prompted a number of residents to sue the agency back in March of last year, saying that the “stop and frisk” policy, which targeted “trespassers” was in fact unlawful. The program was called the Trespass Affidavit Program, or TAP. A vast majority of TAP cases were so weak on evidence, they were dropped by prosecutors before they ever got to court. But that didn’t stop officers from simply stopping whoever may have been passing (usually, a poor minority) and harassing them.

Last month, those residents won their case, with a U.S. District Court judge issuing an injunction against the TAP program, finding that police officials showed a “deliberate indifference” to the constitutional rights of those who were being stopped.

But New York, of course, isn’t the only agency to routinely employ questionable stop-and-search tactics.

While we would certainly encourage use of this app for bystanders, as well as for a general understanding of your rights, it’s important for those who may encounter direct police attention to know how to assert their rights in the midst of police encounters.

In understanding what you need to do, you also need to understand the type of encounter you are having. There are two basic types: Consensual and investigatory. The latter is when the officer has reasonable suspicion that you may have been involved in criminal activity, no matter how minor. In these cases you are obliged to stay and cooperate (though you do not have to answer potentially incriminating questions).

A consensual encounter, though, is one in which both parties voluntarily participate. Of course, a strong argument could be made that police have the ability to compel consent in any encounter, given that they are armed with guns and handcuffs and the ability to arrest you.

The best tactic in these situations is to be explicit in your desire not to participate. That is, you don’t want to answer any questions and you don’t consent to having your property searched. Be aware that refusal sometimes inherently look suspicious to an officer, but you need to remain firm in your right not to get involved. Sometimes, you may have to say no several times.

Ideally, if the officer has no reasonable suspicion, he will simply give up and go another direction. If that doesn’t happen, at least there will be ample evidence that you were not a willing participant, and that could mean that any evidence uncovered subsequently may be suppressed in court.
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A woman from Greenacres has been charged with both DUI and child neglect after she was stopped for suspected drunk driving, with her teen daughter in the backseat. vodka.jpg

Our Palm Beach County criminal defense lawyers know this is a nightmare situation for any parent. Not only are you having to contend with the possible criminal sanctions, there are the sanctions you will face within your community, potentially from your employer and maybe even from the Department of Children and Families.

The outcome could very well impact the trajectory of your life, and the relationships you have with those in it. These are not cases you can afford to leave to chance with a public defender or with an inexperienced private defense lawyer.

In the state of Florida, if you are arrested for DUI and also have a minor passenger under the age of 18 in your vehicle, the state will enhance the existing DUI penalties by imposing additional sanctions of up to 9 months in jail and a $1,000 fine or 1 year in jail and a $5,000 for repeated offenses.

In this case, according to the arresting officer, the defendant was spotted swerving and hitting the curb as she traveled on Jog Road. Then the vehicle slowed – to 25 miles per hour in a 45 mile per hour zone.

The officer pulled her over, and as he approached the car, the officer noted she was looking in her mirror and grabbing some gum on which to chew. (This doesn’t necessarily mean anything from a legal standpoint, but of course the officer is trying to insinuate that she was nervous and trying to mask the smell of alcohol on her breath.)

The woman’s daughter was in the backseat.

The officer said the woman seemed confused. When the officer asked for her driver’s license, vehicle registration and insurance card, he said she simply stared at him for several seconds. She then handed him her insurance card and stared blankly again before loudly stating he still needed her license and registration. She then fumbled for those items in her purse.

At some point, the woman told the officer she had been sipping coffee, but had drank no alcohol. She then pointed to a foam coffee cup with a straw that was in the console. When the officer asked to see it, he said, he found a liquid that was clear and smelled strongly of alcohol.

The officer then requested that she perform several roadside sobriety tests, which she reportedly failed. At one point, she said she would not be able to close her eyes without falling.

She then agreed to submit to a breathalyzer test, where the officer reported a blood alcohol level of 0.238 percent. A reading this high is always a concern for us as attorneys for several reasons. To start, breathalyzers are notoriously unreliable and have been known in many cases to produce inaccurate and inflated results. A reading of 0.238 is approximately three times the legal limit. If this reading were accurate, this woman’s blood alcohol level was just a few percentage points shy of potentially lethal alcohol poisoning.
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An effort by a California-based advocacy group in a D.C. federal court for the reclassification of marijuana under federal law has failed. cannabisindica.jpg

Our Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers know this is likely to have little impact in our state, where the drug is deemed illegal for both medical and recreational purposes. Had the advocacy group been successful, it would have likely meant an overhaul to marijuana laws nationwide.

Undoubtedly, this will not be the last time such an argument is made. Given the rapid progression of the national conversation on the issue, tending now toward favor of legalization, combined with the fact that the D.C. court’s decision was split 2-1, we may yet see change in this regard in the coming years.

In the meantime, marijuana will retain its classification as a Schedule 1 narcotic. What this means is that it is deemed on par with heroin and worse than cocaine and even methamphetamine in terms of addiction and its lack of any medically-recognized purpose.

Of course, this classification flies in the face of logic regarding what we know of the drug and the way it is prescribed to ailing patients by hundreds of thousands of medical doctors across the country each year. In all, 20 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use and voters in two states – Washington and Colorado – just recently approved legalization for small amounts for recreational use as well.

Attorneys for the advocacy group contended that federal, state and local authorities are bias against the drug, and routinely exaggerate its dangers while ignoring the potential benefits.

However, lawyers for the Drug Enforcement Administration countered that in order to have accepted medicinal purposes under the law, a drug’s effectiveness would have to be tested in a study that was well-conducted, well-designed, well-documented and involved a large number of people. The DEA contended that no such studies exist, and the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia concurred.

In an interesting opinion penned by the majority, the justices conceded that while marijuana “could” have certain medical benefits, the lack of research on the issue prompted them not to overturn the DEA’s current classification.

Of course, this argument rings hollow when you consider that the advocacy group presented evidence of some 200 scientific studies on the drug that point to its medical benefits.

Because of this, the group said it intends to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Florida, marijuana-related charges carry stiff penalties. This is one state that has not jumped on the bandwagon when it comes to leniency for offenders caught with pot.

For example, possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana carries a maximum of 1 year in jail and a fine of $1,000. Any more than that, and is a felony, punishable by 5 to 15 years in prison, with fines of up to $10,000.

Sale of marijuana is even more serious. Selling or distributing less than 20 grams is still a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail, but it also comes with a maximum $10,000 fine. Sale of 25 pounds or less can get you five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Anything above that, you are looking at a minimum three years in prison or a maximum of 30 years, with fines ranging from $5,000 to $200,000.

Even just possessing paraphernalia can result in a 5-year prison term.

And don’t forget – a conviction will also mean you’ll lose your driver’s license for two years.
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