The treatment of the homeless was a huge issue in Fort Lauderdale at the tail end of 2014. With a mayoral race coming up, it's probably going to be the defining conversation of the new year as well. Today, homeless advocates are gathering at the Broward County Courthouse to push the court system to provide legal representation for indigent defendants at their first court appearance.
A little background: When you get picked up or arrested in Broward, your first stop before a judge is in bond court. Right now, there's no mandated legal representation for poor people who end up in that position and can't afford a lawyer.
So most of the time, the homeless folks, who are usually picked up on municipal ordinance violations like panhandling, trespassing, and drinking charges, face a judge alone -- meaning they have a day in court without their constitutionally guaranteed legal rep.
"The right to counsel for indigent persons charged with municipal ordinances is continuously overlooked by the courts and the cities," Nadine Girault Levy, a chief assistant at the Broward Public Defender's office, wrote in a recent letter to the court. "The result is a violation of the individual's due process."
Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein has long pushed the court to mandate legal representation for bond court. In late 2014, Chief Judge Peter Weinstein promised the system would be fixed in the new year. "It wasn't the first time that Judge Weinstein had made the same guarantee," a release from homeless advocates this week announced.
Today, homeless advocates are holding an event at the courthouse at 12:30 p.m. The public politicking is a push for a revision to the legal system so the poor and homeless people who end up in bond hearings will have a lawyer at their side.