Attorneys appointed for homeless defendants in Broward County

Public defender credits Bob Norman for change

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Last week Local 10 News reported on a serious problem at the Broward County courthouse -- some of the poorest offenders, many of them homeless, are not getting legal representation in court. It's what some claim is an ongoing violation of the Constitution, but now things are changing in the right direction.

William Mosher, 52, is homeless and apparently mentally disabled.

Since 2005, Mosher has been charged more than 80 times with municipal violations like trespassing and open container, but this past week he finally has someone in the courtroom to help him.

"I'm going to appoint Mr. (Steven) Schaet to represent you," Judge John Hurley said. 

Mosher and other municipal violation offenders got an attorney to represent them at first appearance just like everyone else gets.

"For the first time in six years there's actually a defense lawyer (who is) going to court for the homeless," Broward County public defender Howard Finkelstein said.

Finkelstein has complained for years that the city of Fort Lauderdale has violated the Constitution by not providing an attorney in first appearance court. Now, Chief Judge Peter Weinstein said the city needs to do just that.

"The only reason that's happening, quite frankly, is because of you, Bob," Finkelstein told Local 10 News investigative reporter Bob Norman. "If you hadn't done these stories, this would have gone on."

He had harsh words for Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, who maintains counsel isn't required at first appearance for those offenders.

"The mayor is well aware of what is going on here and everybody, due to political expedience, looked the other way," Finkelstein said.

Seiler defends his stance but said he now wants the city to contract with the Finkelstein's office so there will always be an attorney for those defendants in the courtroom.

But Finkelstein said the city will have to provide its own attorney.

"I only contract with people I trust," Finkelstein said. "I don't trust the city of Fort Lauderdale when it comes to homeless."

So what if the city goes back to its old ways and stops supplying an attorney to the courtroom? The chief judge said he's working on an order to give Hurley express consent to throw those cases right out of court.

Follow Bob Norman on Twitter @NormanOn10

Follow Local 10 News on Twitter @WPLGLocal10