Lazaro Rodriguez was forced to represent himself at his criminal trial in Miami, another victim of the kind of assembly line justice that has ruined too many lives. 

The case against Rodriguez involved a traffic stop during early morning hours of Dec. 17, 2015.  He and his partner were pulled over for speeding by Miami police. When he protested the ticket and his treatment by the officers, they arrested him. As they were handcuffing him, his pants fell to the ground.   When he tried to pull them up, the officers charged him with one felony count of threatening an officer, and two misdemeanor counts of resisting an officer without violence.

The next day, the court appointed an attorney from the Miami-Dade public defender’s office to represent Rodriguez because he could not afford counsel. The public defender  convinced the judge that Rodriguez should be released on low bail, in part by arguing that the felony charge of threatening an officer was baseless. She then asserted Rodriguez’s right to a jury trial, filed a written demand for discovery, and requested to depose the state’s witnesses. Following the hearing, the public defender interviewed Rodriguez to begin developing a list of potential witnesses and mapping out a defense strategy. 

At the next court date in January 2016, the prosecution dropped the felony charge and one of the misdemeanor resisting charges. This left only one misdemeanor charge, which created a problem for the prosecution.  Under Florida law, resisting arrest requires a valid arrest.  But if Rodriguez’s felony charge was bogus, what was the basis for the arrest he supposedly resisted? 

With its case falling apart, the prosecution did something drastic: it asked presiding Judge Andrew Hague to dismiss Rodriguez’s public defender on the grounds that it would not seek jail time.  This meant Rodriguez was no longer entitled to a lawyer.

Since the vast majority of misdemeanor cases in Miami-Dade County do not end with a conviction (or subsequent jail time) the prosecutor’s decision not to seek jail time was a minor concession.  The public defender objected, arguing that Florida law required Judge Hague to determine whether her removal would disadvantage Mr. Rodriguez.  The judge ignored this request and discharged the lawyer.

 On April 27, 2016, Rodriguez had his day in court, representing himself.  Things did not go well. Rodriguez unwittingly waived his right to a jury trial after Judge Hague failed to explain what was happening. The prosecution’s case rested entirely on the testimony of the arresting officers. But because Rodriguez did not know how to follow up with the public defender’s requests for discovery and depositions, he was unprepared to challenge the officers’ testimony. To make matters worse, Judge Hague repeatedly and loudly berated Rodriguez for not knowing how to ask questions like a lawyer. 

After a trial that lasted barely 90 minutes, Judge Hague convicted Rodriguez of resisting arrest and imposed a fine of $358.  But the judge failed to inform Rodriguez that he had a right to appeal or that he would have the right to a lawyer for an appeal. So Rodriguez did not appeal and remains a convicted criminal to this day.

What happened to Rodriguez is fundamentally unfair. But it is not yet unconstitutional. 

Nearly 40 years ago, the United States Supreme Court held in Scott v. Illinois that the Sixth Amendment, despite guaranteeing the right to counsel “in all criminal cases,” only applies to misdemeanor defendants who receive a sentence of incarceration. Scott helped lay the foundation for the assembly-line justice practiced in most misdemeanor courts today, where thousands of defendants are convicted every day without having a lawyer.

Even without jail time, these convictions can irrevocably damage a life. The consequences of having a criminal record can include deportation, loss of employment or housing, and ineligibility for crucial public benefits, what many refer to as a “civil death.”

These civil consequences are real, and they are insidious.  That is why every person accused of a crime must have a lawyer. That is the plain language of the Sixth Amendment. It is also required by the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the 14th Amendment.

The quality of justice a person receives should not depend on wealth.  A defendant with more resources than Lazaro Rodriguez would have been able to pay for an attorney to defend against the charges.   That is why we’re suing Judge Hague and other officials and demanding that they invalidate Rodriguez’s conviction and finally give him a fair trial with a lawyer.

Ending the prosecution’s power to decide who deserves a public defender is a critical part of protecting the right to a fair trial for everyone, not just the wealthy.  

Brandon Buskey, ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project