Earlier this month, the Florida Supreme Court publicly scolded an Orlando judge for more than six minutes straight for the way she handled a domestic violence case last year.
Judge Jerri Collins was overseeing a domestic violence trial when a victim failed to appear and testify. After the trial was completed, Collins called the victim back into the courtroom, this time to hold her for contempt of court.
The victim pleaded with the judge that she could not go to jail because she had a 1 year old son to care for. She said that she had not appeared in court because she was suffering from anxiety and depression related to the domestic violence trial.
Throughout the hearing, Collins used “sarcasm and inflammatory language” against the victim, berating her and bringing her to tears. Collins, at one point, told the victim, “You’re going to have anxiety now? You haven’t even seen anxiety.”
Collins sentenced the victim to three days in county jail for contempt of court. While this sentence is within the boundaries of Florida law, Collins’ behavior angered the public – and the Supreme Court.
Footage of the hearing was broadcast in late July on an Orlando television station. Immediately, social media posts and an online petition called for her removal from the court. The state of Florida responded by giving Collins a public reprimand in which the Florida Supreme Court said her behavior was “intolerable” and gave people the impression that she was siding with the prosecution. They also said her behavior damaged the judicial system’s reputation for impartiality.
After the reprimand, the Florida Supreme Court told Collins she would have to attend courses on anger management and domestic violence. She will, however, continue to preside over misdemeanor cases until her six-year term ends in 2021.
What This Means for Your Domestic Violence Case
This story is obviously not how most domestic violence hearings proceed. However, it does make for a good lesson about proper behavior in a courtroom – regardless of whether you are a judge, a witness, or a defendant.
Remember, Judge Collins was legally allowed to jail the woman in question. She is appropriately receiving criticism, though, for an abuse of her discretion, as well as her demeanor and the harsh way in which she reprimanded the victim.
The heat is high in domestic violence courts, and that’s not a reference to temperature. During hearings in domestic violence cases alleged victims and defendants are typically facing each other for the first time since the subject incident. In the meantime court orders may have prohibited contact between the parties, separated children from a parent, thrown the family into financial turmoil and negatively impacted jobs and careers.
Emotional outbursts are common, but they can be very harmful to the cause of the anxiety driven person who has lashed out. In the case of a defendant who acts in that way, his or her behavior is not likely to be forgotten by a prosecutor who becomes more zealous, or a judge who makes decisions affecting the liberty of the defendant. And of course, when jurors witness a defendant’s lack of control of his or her emotions, the prosecutor’s claim that the defendant’s bad behavior led to his or her arrest becomes more believable.
One thing that can help: Having a professional by your side. When you work with a knowledgeable domestic violence attorney, he or she will be able to properly prepare you in advance of the hearing, and to help keep you calm and to behave like a peaceful and under-control person in front of the prosecutor, the judge and the jury.
Additionally, and obviously, an effective lawyer can make sure you understand your charges, the associated penalties, and how things like a domestic violence injunction can impact your life and behavior.
Hiring a private criminal defense lawyer will give you the time you need to go through the details of your case and build a strong defense that gives you the best chance at getting your charges reduced, dropped, or dismissed.
Bottom line: when facing domestic violence charges, it is important to remember that it is not only your actions from a specific incident that are on trial – judges and jury members pay close attention to how you behave in court when deciding your fate, and coming across as belligerent or uncaring can do irreparable harm to your case.
About the Author:
Attorney David W. Olson is the founder of the Law Offices of David W. Olson in West Palm Beach. He has been practicing criminal law and successfully representing clients throughout the State of Florida for over 30 years. Throughout his legal career, Mr. Olson has been honored numerous times for both his dedication and excellence in criminal law. He proudly holds the Martindale-Hubbell AV Rating, as well as being recognized as a Top 100 Trial Lawyer (2013), in the Nation’s Top One Percent of attorneys (2015), and as a 10 Best Member of the American Institute of Criminal Law Attorneys (2015). He has even received commendations from members of congress and other public officials for the fantastic work that he’s done. Mr. Olson graduated from the University of Florida’s Fredric G. Levin College of Law in 1981 and has been a member of the Florida Bar since 1983.