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Measure adding greater protections to defense counsel makes strides in both chambers

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Sen. Jennifer Bradley

Sen. Jennifer Bradley

The measures offering greater protection to defense counsel and enhancing the penalties for anyone who attacks any court-appointed counsel or defense counsel took more steps toward becoming law this week.

On March 13, SB 384 received its first hearing in the upper chamber’s Criminal Justice Committee. The bill, filed by Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, serves as the companion bill to HB 71, by Rep. Patt Maney, R-Shalimar, would amend F.S. §775.0823, outlining penalties for violent offenses committed against law enforcement officers, correctional officers, state attorneys, assistant state attorneys, justices, or judges.

“An attack on anyone during a court proceeding disrupts the very function of justice,” Bradley said.

Bradley recounted the courtroom attack that brought this bill to fruition. In November of last year, Gainesville defense attorney Eric Atria was representing his criminally charged client during a trial in an Alachua County courtroom. Without warning, Obadiah Dillard attacked his counsel, punching him on the left side of the face — fracturing his skull.

“He [the defendant] believed that punching his lawyer would end his trial and that the worst thing that would occur in doing so is that it would just be a simple battery. Had he not fractured the skull of his lawyer, he would have been correct,” Bradley said.

Bradley said enhanced protections remove defense attorneys from being an easy target in a criminal proceeding.

Atria traveled to Tallahassee to speak in support of the measure and said his client’s actions were planned.

“It turned out my client made a calculated decision to knock me out with a one-two sucker punch to the side of the head and I never saw it coming. I say calculated because we intercepted a jail call where he giddily recounts his attack on me to his sister claiming that it had to be done and that it’s no big deal because it’s just a misdemeanor,” Atria said.

Atria said that sometimes defendants take out their anger on defense counsel.

“They’re in difficult situations facing serious consequences and we’re just the bearers of bad news and sometimes they take it out on us. Usually, it’s just verbal. It’s certainly foreseeable to me that this can and will happen again,” Atria said.

Following his testimony, Atria was asked by Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, if this sort of thing was common practice.

“There were no specific statistics to speak of, but all I can tell you is that looking back I can now pinpoint instances where there was one degree of separation before it could happen, it just never got to that level, and I, quite frankly, I took it for granted,” Atria said.

Bradley added one amendment to the bill that clarifies that enhanced penalties would be enforced for attacks that happen during criminal proceedings and adds other technical and conforming changes.

The Criminal Justice Committee passed SB 384 unanimously 7-0. The bill now heads to its final committee stop in the Rules Committee.

On March 14, the House Judiciary took up Maney’s version of the measure for its third and final committee stop in the lower chamber and said the point of the bill is a matter of public safety.

“This bill will very simply expand the protection of people in the courtroom…to the defense attorney whether that’s a public defender, assistant public defender, regional counsel, or assistant regional counsel. [The] statute already protects the judge and the prosecutor by enhancing the penalties for somebody who attacks those people,” Maney said.

Atria also spoke to the House committee on Tuesday and said advocating for the measure is odd for a defense attorney.

“I realize that it is strange for me to ask you all to consider enhancing somebody’s penalties because my job is the opposite of that,” he said. “Every other day of the week, I’m standing in front of judges asking them to reduce penalties, to find exceptions to the law and to go light on my clients. I take that seriously and I fight hard for my clients. The result that happened in this situation is I got punched in the head.”

Without questions or debate, the House committee passed the measure 22-0. The bill is now ready for the floor.

In his closing statement, Maney said treating the defense attorneys like the prosecutors is also a matter of recruitment and retention.

“Why should you take a job, one job over another, one if you’re protected and one if you’re not protected?” Maney asked.

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