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Florida crime victims and prosecutors will soon enjoy the same right to a speedy trial as defendants under a state law that takes effect on July 1. Prosecutors have long fumed about what they consider to be stalling tactics by defendants and their lawyers that they say delay trials, postpone justice, punish victims and witnesses, and cost the system millions of dollars annually in lost time and money. In recent years, national victims’ rights advocates have made the inability of the state to push reluctant defendants or a lazy judge to trial an issue of concern. Now, Florida may be the first state to actually pass a law that authorizes state attorneys to file a demand for speedy trial on behalf of victims. “I don’t know of any others,” said the state attorney for the 7th Circuit, John Tanner of Daytona Beach, Fla., a principal supporter of the new law. The law was passed over the objections of defense advocates, including the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, who fear encroachment on the rights of the accused. On May 24, Tanner was present in Tallahassee, Fla., when Gov. Jeb Bush signed the law that sailed through the House and the Senate with just one dissenting voice. Tanner said the law is directed at defendants, lawyers and procrastinating judges who impede the wheel of justice “for no good reason.” “Some judges have never seen a continuance they don’t like,” Tanner said last week. “This rule is not necessary for those diligent, attentive judges doing their job. This is for those that have apparently no regard for the victims of crime and little regard for the safety of the community.” Palm Beach County State Attorney Barry Krischer said the law should give victims real leverage that they haven’t gotten before from other pro-victim laws. By way of example, he cited the case of 13-year-old Nathaniel Brazil, who shot and killed teacher Barry Grunow in a Lake Worth, Fla., school in 2000. Following delay after delay, an attorney for Grunow’s widow demanded that Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Richard I. Wennet immediately set the case for trial. But Wennet turned down the demand, ruling that victims did not have standing to make such a demand. Krischer ultimately got a conviction and makes no claim that his case was compromised by the delay. But he still believes the new law is a good idea. “This law makes it very clear that we do have an absolute right that the court is going to have to rule upon,” Krischer said. “I think it’s great.” Since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, criminal defendants have had the right to a speedy and public trial. Under Florida’s rules of criminal procedure, every person charged with a felony must be brought to trial within 175 days. If that doesn’t happen, a defendant may file papers to force a trial that must then occur within 15 days, or the charge will be dismissed. The same rules let defendants demand a speedy trial within 60 days of indictment. If a defendant is not brought to trial within 50 days of the filing of that demand, he may file notice that effectively sets a 15-day period in which a trial must be held, or the charge will be dropped. Florida’s new law, originally H.B. 285, creates a process by which a state attorney can file a demand for a speedy trial if the state has met its obligations under the rules of discovery and the court has granted at least three continuances, or delays, over the objection of prosecutors. Before such a demand can be filed in a felony case, though, 125 days must pass from the day that formal charges were filed and the defendant is arrested. For a misdemeanor, that time limit is 45 days. When a state attorney files a speedy trial demand, a judge must schedule a calendar call within five days to set a trial date. Trial must then commence “no sooner than five days or later than 45 days,” although the law allows for further postponements if a “necessary” witness failed twice to show up for deposition or a defense lawyer withdrew due a conflict of interest or other “good legal cause.” The Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers opposed the speedy trial law. “We were against this because anything that handcuffs a judge by limiting his discretion, we oppose,” said group vice president Jeffrey Harris of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Harris said the FACDL will monitor cases around the state to see whether prosecutors start objecting more frequently to defense requests for continuances that they might traditionally have gone along with. Broward County State Attorney Mike Satz said the law is “beneficial” for cases where malingering defendants or their lawyers are “unduly trying to delay the proceedings.” “In most cases, delay may result in the loss of witnesses as well as memory concerns. It’s especially true with elderly witnesses,” Satz said. But the lone dissenter in the Legislature, who points out she’s worked as both an assistant public defender and a prosecutor in Miami, sees things differently. Rep. Yolly Roberson, a Miami Democrat, calls the new statute “not a good thing.” “I voted against it because I think it infringes on a defendant’s right to due process,” said Roberson, a practicing criminal defense lawyer. “Defendants need enough time to prepare, to do all that they can because they have a presumption that they are innocent until proven guilty.” Diane M. Cuddihy, chief assistant Broward public defender, said the significant distinction that exists between the speedy trial rights of both sides will be important in any clash of interests that might come when a defendant’s right to due process is squarely at odds with a victim’s right to demand a speedy trial. “Speedy trial is a constitutional right that was created so people don’t languish in the system without having their day in court,” Cuddihy said. “I would think the constitutional right of a defendant would trump a statute.” It’s that kind of thinking that’s limited enthusiasm for the new law, which has wide, but shallow support. The Tallahassee-based Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association initially resisted backing the measure. Some prosecutors feared it might give victims too much influence to push cases too early for trials, said one prosecutor who would not be named. Others worried that it could lead to convictions being overturned on appeal. “It wasn’t a hot, burning issue with us, but we supported it,” said FPAA president Willie Meggs, state attorney for the 2nd Circuit in Tallahassee. “I don’t want to sound flippant about it all, but if you push a defendant to trial too quick before they’re ready � historically, the courts have said you are going to try that one again. And we don’t want to try it again.” Meggs, whose two-year term as FPAA president ends at the end of the month, nevertheless calls the law a “useful tool” that can be used to put pressure on a judge to get a case moving. Succeeding Meggs as president is Bruce Colton, state attorney for the 19th Circuit in Fort Pierce, Fla. The law’s sponsor, Rep. Dorothy L. Hukill, R-Port Orange, said Meggs’ concerns are unfounded because the law includes language that protects defendants by allowing judges to grant “whatever further extensions” of time may be required to prevent a loss of due process rights. “That’s why that sentence is in there,” said Hukill, a probate and real estate attorney. “We don’t want that to happen.”

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