Today, I’m joined by my good friend, trial lawyer and former County Court Judge, Cliff Barnes. Cliff talked with me about what it was like to be a County Court Judge in Florida.
CB: It’s just the most fun you can have. You can help people. You’re not dealing with robbers, rapists, child molesters, killers. You’re dealing with everyday people, most of whom have jobs, careers, family, and have messed up in some minor way, usually.
MK: I was telling a young lawyer just the other day, “You know, you hardly ever see real evil in County Court.” Every once in a while you have a career criminal that was trying to commit a felony and failed, and ends up just charged with a misdemeanor in County Court, but those are pretty rare. Most people in County Court are just regular folks.
CB: Yeah, the worst I ever saw was a man who couldn’t quit beating women, and DUI offenders who would offend over and over again. So those are the two really serious areas that County Court sees.
MK: And Florida Law has really corrected for that. Now, a person with a prior battery conviction can be charged with a felony just on the second battery. And with DUIs, it’s on the third, if they’re close enough in time, or on the fourth no matter how long ago they were.
CB: Which makes the County Judges’ lives even easier.
MK: A judge in Martin County is fond of saying that DUI cases are the first degree murders of County Court.
CB: Absolutely. But I often would tell the audience, sometimes in cases, that I can’t believe I get paid to do this. It’s like being host of Saturday Night Live. Every single docket call, every single day, it seems that you have an experience that you just shake your head, and you just can’t believe someone says something or does something.
CB: I want to tell you the funniest thing, and I think I still have a video, because I asked the court administration to make a video of this. I had a full docket call in a big courtroom, back then it was called “A”, first floor, that’s where we held the big docket calls. So there were probably two or three hundred people in there, I would think, with maybe a hundred and fifty being defendants, and the rest being family and friends, lawyers, court clerks, bailiffs, you name it.
CB: Usually, my bailiffs liked to get the cases with children involved out of the courtroom. If there are children in the courtroom, they’re not going to behave for long. I know mine wouldn’t.
CB: So, the bailiff came to me and said, “Can we call this case?” And I said, “Sure.” I had no idea who it was. It was a public defender case and the public defender came up and her client was in shackles because he had been arrested for a string of misdemeanor violations, and finally, I just did a warrant with no bond because “look, I release you, you’re presumed to be innocent, so you get released and then you go out there and you get charged with another crime and then you get released on that [I probably put conditions on him like no drinking, no drugging, a curfew] and you can’t abide by that, you go out and get another case.”
CB: Well, these were minor violations, like marijuana or driving on a suspension. There wasn’t anybody involved that was hurt.
CB: His lawyer starts telling me why I should release him, for the third or fourth time. I said, “Ma’am, there is nothing you can tell me, you or your client, that is going to convince me to release your client on any amount of bond because he’s got three pending cases, maybe four, in my court.”
MK: And you can’t count on him to follow any of the rules, so it’s not about the bond money.
CB: Right. It’s just that he’s a one-man crime wave. I think I mentioned, I said, “Sir, you’re a one-man crime wave.” I just lost my patience with him completely. He was trying to explain why he should get another break and the lawyer’s trying to explain, and I said, “You must not have heard me from the start. I don’t mind hearing you out, if you just want to keep talking, but, no, your actions have spoken louder than anything you can tell me here today and you’re going to wait in jail until we either get the cases resolved with pleas, or we have trials.”
CB: And all of a sudden I heard this voice from way back, I think it was the back row of the courtroom, and I hear this woman, “Judge Barnes! Judge Barnes! I need to talk to you! I need to talk to you!”
CB: So, the crowd parted and this woman came up and she had three children with her, one in her arm and hse had one by the hand, dragging him along, he was probably five or six, and then she had another smaller one and she’s trying to push him along.
CB: She and the three children come up and she says, “Judge Barnes,” and tears are streaming down her face. I go, “Ma’am, I understand you want him home, but I can’t let him out of jail. He just keeps committing crime after crime after crime.”
CB: She says, “You don’t understand. I said, “No, you don’t understand.”
CB: She said, “Judge Barnes,” she looked right at me and quit crying. She said, “These are only three of our children. We have two more at home. And I’ve never watched the children. He watches them. I work every day and he stays home with the children.”
CB: This was on a Friday. She looked right at me and she said, “I don’t think we’re all going to make it through the weekend if he’s not here.” Like one of these children, something’s going to happen to them. And she was serious! She was just distraught, just frantic.
CB: And I said, “Ma’am, I know it’s tough, but when people commit crimes, they bring sadness and inconvenience on their families, hard times.”
CB: Right about the time I was saying that, I saw the little boy let go of her hand. He was probably five. And I saw, just like in a cartoon in slow motion, I could see the bubble above his head because I saw what he was looking at, and I knew exactly what was going to happen, but I couldn’t stop it.
CB: The little boy had seen the gate between the audience and the court personnel, where they come up, they open the gate and they’re with you, then. He saw that thing swinging, and he let go of mama’s hand and he ran and caught, perfectly, the gate on the in-swing and rode it all the way up against the wall. It went WHAMM! And then it actually fell apart. The top of the gate disconnected.
MK: This five-year-old broke your courtroom?
CB: And I’m looking at this. The people that were facing me couldn’t even see what happened, but the rest of the courtroom did.
CB: And I said, “Okay, we’re going to release your husband.”
CB: I think it was a marijuana case, and I said, “I”m going to R.O.R. him,” which means release him just like he was fresh in the court with no prior offenses. I realized that woman was telling the truth. That woman, she worked every day. She had five children of five different ages to take care of. It was like a message from above – you think you’re so smart, you think you have all these rules, but there’s always an exception.
CB: So, I said, “R.O.R. this guy.”
MK: You probably saved a life.
CB: Maybe five. And my pre-trial program people, “I said he’s on pre-trial” and they said, “What are the rules?”
CB: I said, “Well, you’re not going to drug test him. He smokes marijuana. I get it. And you’re not going to drug test him because you’re going to want me to put him back in jail and there is no way I’m putting that man in jail if he’s taking care of five children so a woman can work and feed the family. It just ain’t gonna happen. These are victimless crimes. We’ll resolve them some other way.”
CB: So, it didn’t end there. I think it was Monday, he brought all five children, because they have to show up at the office of the pre-trial program. At least, they did then (now, I don’t know). He brought all five children for his first interview with pre-trial, and they said the entire office was in shambles when the kids left because they’re picking things up, they’re opening drawers, they’re moving files, they’re standing on furniture.
CB: And I said, “You see why we’re not going to violate him?”
CB: They said, Judge, you really don’t want us to drug test him for marijuana?”
CB: I said, “No, do you want him back in your office? Do you want five children back in your office? No.You’re not going to do that. We’re going to get through this and we’re going to take care of this gentleman another way.”
MK: As a County Court Judge, sometimes you just have to be willing to be creative and come up with an alternative solution.