Monday, March 30, 2009

"No Hostile Contact"

In monitoring injunction hearings this afternoon, I witnessed a petitioner requesting an injunction against a former boyfriend with whom she now has a roommate relationship (and a joint apartment lease that doesn't expire until August). The Respondent admitted to withholding Petitioner's cell phone from her in order to check her text messages because he alleged that she was intimate with someone else and he had a right to know the details (withholding someone's ability to call for help & violating their privacy is a common power & control tactic of abusers). He claimed the injunction was only a tactic she was using to get out of the lease. The Petitioner stated that her 9-yr old sister was present in the apartment when the Respondent pushed her.

Judge Sally Kest, after stating that both parties were involved in hostilities (I don't recall testimony that the Petitioner had been violent - other than trying to grab her phone from the Respondent), granted a 6 month "no hostile contact" injunction. She then stated to the parties that they could both live in the apartment (at which point the Petitioner became panicky) and said the parties would have to work together to resolve the lease. The judge subsequently told the Petitioner that she wasn't requiring her to live in the apartment, just that she (the judge) wouldn't order one of the parties to leave. She then told the Respondent he could return to the residence, from which he'd been excluded when the temporary injuction had been served, and admonished him that it was his responsibility to leave if there was an argument.

"No Hostile Contact" orders are essentially unenforceable, unless there are eyewitnesses to an event. They give victims a false sense of security in believing that they can/will be enforced. Many abusers are very adept at threatening their victims with simple gestures or even an intimidating look that nobody else would recognize as a threat. It is rare for law enforcement to arrest someone for violating this type of court order unless there are injuries they can document or unless a third party witnesses a verbal assault. If judges are going to order "no hostile contact," they ought to grant permission for victims to record phone conversations without the abuser's permission. At least the victim will be able to provide evidence should the abuser violate the court order.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Box of Chocolates

Our primary focus is domestic violence, sexual assault & child abuse. However, going to Court on any given day is a lot like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates - you never know what you're going to get.

This morning I had 2 young ladies from Phi Alpha Delta legal fraternity at UCF come to court for their on-the-job training as volunteers. We happened upon a bond motion in Judge Davis' courtroom for a defendant named John Pavao (case 2008CF19171). He is charged with RICO, Racketeering, Fraud & Theft (12 counts combined). The judge assigned the public defender to represent him on a Bond Reduction Motion because he was found to be indigent. The public defender, William Hancock, was given 5-10 minutes to prepare (having never seen the case before), and did a commendable job. The defendant is accused of having stolen $6M in real estate from people. He was in custody on a $1.5M bond. One charge relates to his having an 80+ year old victim sign some papers that deeded her paid-for house over to him. She had turned to him for a small loan to pay the taxes. Her house is now being foreclosed on because he allegedly "skimmed the equity" she had.

The judge granted the bond reduction to $21K (barely more than 1% of the original bond amount!), ordered that he surrender his passports, be put on GPS monitoring and prohibited him from engaging in the buying or selling of real estate while this case is pending. So he goes home to his house in Windermere (which is being foreclosed on) to await trial. The case is very complex and will likely take 2 weeks to try (and it'll likely be several months before it gets to trial). His wife, daughter, and two other individuals are co-defendants.

After I heard the details on this one victim, I was angry that this (alleged) thief will be out soon. In spite of the compelling testimony presented by the State's investigator, the judge is granting what I think is a ludicrously low bond amount. The defendant is also wanted in Massachusetts and has ties to Portugal. Maybe the fact that his wife ($1.5M bond) & 22-yr old daughter ($1.5M bond) are still in jail will keep him in town. I hope the victim(s) in this case get their day in court.

3/31/09 Update:

Pavao's daughter has a bond motion scheduled for 4/1 at 10:30am in front of the same judge. Pavao posted bond on Friday 3/27 but is being held on a warrant from Massachusetts.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Why blog?

There is so much happening in and to the court system, that I'm finding it tough to figure out how to communicate to our volunteers, supporters & the general public about what we see happening in our judicial system. A friend of mine suggested to me that this might be a good forum, so we'll see how it goes.

My most pressing priority at this time is to relate how deeply concerned I am about the funding cuts we're all facing. The school systems are well organized and have an abundance of PTAs that can make a significant amount of noise about the need to fund education. It's something I'm certain every citizen supports.

Unfortunately, the court systems around the State have not engaged the public to speak out on their behalf. Over the past year, I have seen the felony divisions in Orange County cut the number of prosecutors nearly in half. Where there used to be 5 or 6 assigned to a division (which typically has 600-700 cases), there are now 3 (not including the Sex Crimes Unit prosecutor which handles sex crimes & child victim cases in at least 2 divisions).

I'm not sure why Tallahassee continues to force us to close courtrooms (in fact, there are only 6 out of 12 felony divisions open for business this Friday, 3/27) and cut the staff needed in the State Attorney's Office, the Public Defender's Office, and other areas (interpreters, court reporters, victim advocates, case managers, etc). In future posts I will share some stories about how a lack of interpreters kept someone in jail for several weeks before he could even communicate with his public defender (who didn't have the money to pay for a specialized interpreter). Or the woman that was found not guilty by reason of insanity in a child abuse case who sat in jail because the mental health provider wouldn't accept her since her paperwork didn't show her as being adjudicated guilty! Or the victim of domestic violence who wanted to prosecute her abuser, but learned too late that he had accepted a plea offer without having been asked for her input. There are a lot of compelling cases in our courtrooms every day that do not make the 7am, noon, 5pm, and 11pm newscasts like Casey Anthony does.

The judiciary is the place where perpetrators of crime are supposed to be held accountable for their actions! If a criminal (adult or juvenile) does not face the discipline that our laws call for, they are likely to continue to re-offend and in fact raise the bar on the severity of their offenses. One judge said to me a few months ago that unless something is done soon, he fears the entire system will implode.

If we are to be a world class community (with a performing arts center, new arena, commuter rail, Lake Nona's medical complex, etc), we need to make sure our neighborhoods are safe. The courts are an integral part of providing public safety for our entire community. We all need to contact our legislators to let them know that the court system must be adequately funded.

And who out there really thinks our State needs to give US Sugar over a billion dollars for some swampland?????

Laura S. Williams
Board Chair / Program Director
CourtWatch Florida