Monday, July 30, 2007
by Max Marbut
Russell Smith, who was elected president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in June, wasn’t planning to be a criminal defense attorney when he went to law school.
“Frankly, I saw myself in a traditional civil practice, but there I was fresh out of law school with student loans I had to pay off.”
As fate would have it, a few months after Smith passed the bar exam in 1980, he met Lou Frost, the Public Defender for the Fourth Judicial Circuit. Frost needed to hire someone to replace an attorney about to go on maternity leave, and as Smith put it, “He saw something in me.”
It wasn’t long before Frost’s instincts proved to be right on the money.
“The first time I walked into a misdemeanor court, I knew I had found what kind of law I wanted to practice,” said Smith, who added his training was immediate and intense.
“They just handed me a stack of about 45 files, that’s how I got started. I started working for Judge Louise Walker and she told me if at any time I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing, just say so and we would stop and figure it out.”
Smith left the Public Defenders office for private practice in 1984 and has since represented defendants in death penalty, DUI and suspended drivers license cases among others. He was one of the attorneys appointed in 2000 to represent Karl Waldon, a Jacksonville Sheriff’s Deputy accused of robbing and killing a store owner in the back of his police car. It was the first federal death penalty prosecution in the Middle District of Florida in more than 50 years, and after a nine-week trial, the jury returned a verdict rejecting the death penalty.
“I also represented an honors student from Florida A&M University who was arrested for resisting arrest without violence when a security guard at Regency Square tried to make my client’s companion turn his baseball cap around so the bill was facing forward. When my client objected and pointed out that other people nearby were also wearing their caps backwards, he was arrested.
“I worked on that case just as hard as I worked on Karl Waldon’s. If you have the right to be free from government interference in your life, then you have to be free from that interference.”
Smith said he wants to contribute his passion for the concept of justice for all people to the FACDL during his term as president, and there are three issues that he considers should be the organization’s priorities.
Legislation enacted and signed by Gov. Charlie Crist, SB 1088, has changed the way people who can’t afford to hire a defense attorney are represented, Smith said, and he believes the new “Regional Office of Conflict Counsel,” is flawed.
“The system is underfunded and there aren’t enough attorneys to represent the people who are accused,” he said. “The state is trying to save some money, but it’s being done in a way that will compromise the quality of representation. Innocent people will go to prison because of what this legislation has done.
“As an association, we have to advocate to ensure every citizen who is accused of a crime – whether they can afford representation or not – receives fair treatment from the criminal justice system. What’s currently in place won’t work, so we need to use the association’s influence to either fix it or replace it with something that will work,” said Smith.
Another issue Smith said he’d like the FACDL to tackle is legislation to require mandatory recording of police interrogations in their entirety. He said Florida jurisdictions should join thousands of others across the nation in enacting such laws, many of which are modeled after measures the association has supported for more than 10 years.
“Other states, including North Carolina just this month, have adopted bills modeled after the one we adopted, but we can’t even get a hearing here in Florida because whenever the matter is on the calendar, law enforcement agencies bring all the pressure they can to kill the bill,” he said.
The third priority is to make changes in the law that will allow many people with suspended drivers licenses to have their license restored.
“Twenty years ago, there were about 100,000 people in Florida with suspended drivers licenses. Since then it has increased more than twenty-fold,” he said.
“People have had their licenses suspended for failing to pay child support, and minors have had their licenses suspended for getting caught smoking cigarettes,” Smith added. “There are more than 2 million people in Florida with suspended licenses. That means they can’t carry liability insurance and they’re more likely to flee police than pull over and get a ticket. Both issues put other drivers at risk.
“I think we should advocate a change in the law that would allow those charged with misdemeanor driving with a suspended license to be given the opportunity to be brought back into the system. We want every driver in Florida to be licensed and insured.”