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Governor signs measure giving greater protections for defense counsel

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Sen. Jennifer Bradley

Sen. Jennifer Bradley

Beginning July 1, defense counsel in Florida will receive protections already afforded other courtroom officers. On June 5, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed SB 384 into law, which makes it a felony to attack a defense attorney or public defender acting in their courtroom capacity.

The measure, sponsored by Fleming Island Republican Sen. Jennifer Bradley, passed both chambers of the legislature unanimously.

The legislation came to light this session following the vicious attack on Gainesville defense attorney Eric Atria who was representing his criminally charged client during a trial in an Alachua County courtroom. Without warning, Obadiah Dillard assaulted his counsel, punching him on the left side of the face and fracturing his skull.

Atria used his experience to advocate for change that protects other lawyers. He traveled to Tallahassee multiple times during session to meet with lawmakers.

Upon the bill’s passage in the Senate, Bradley said, “Eric…has been such a strong advocate. Justice will be better served because of you and your advocacy.”

A few hours following the bills signing, Atria spoke with the News and said he was proud of the experience.

“I feel both honored and humbled to be the face of this law, knowing that will forever protect my fellow defense attorneys,” Atria said.

The graphic nature of the attack caught on camera shook lawmakers.

House sponsor Rep. Patt Maney, R-Shalimar, spent nearly 30 years as an Okaloosa County Court judge and said he was floored when he saw the footage of the attack.

Rep. Patt Maney

Rep. Patt Maney

“When I saw this incident, it was shocking,” Maney said. “I presided just 10 days short of 29 years as a judge. I never would have imagined something like this happening in my courtroom. I have never seen anyone in the courtroom assaulted. You can’t have a system that doesn’t protect the functioning of the system and the people involved in the system.”

The bill signing came on the same day that Dillard’s trial for aggravated battery against Atria concluded and jurors went into deliberation.

Speaking with the News in April following the bill’s passage in the Senate, Atria said he has never made an argument seeking more penalties for his clients.

“Defense counsel praises themselves as defenders of the Constitution and makes sure the power of the state is in check,” Atria said. “We get up on that high horse, and justifiably so, to almost lose sight of the fact that we can take the position that they can’t hit us.”

When the measure passed the House, Maney summed up the legislation succinctly.

“This is an important bill,” Maney said. “It’s a simple bill, but when people go to the courthouse they ought to feel safe and it ought to be safe.”

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