Drunken potential juror was entitled to lawyer in contempt hearing, top state court says

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A man who showed up for jury duty while intoxicated was entitled to a lawyer in contempt proceedings, the Florida Supreme Court has ruled.

The supreme court said the trial court had incorrectly classified potential juror Noel Plank’s behavior as direct criminal contempt, even though some of his conduct occurred outside the presence of the judge. As a result, he was entitled to a lawyer under Florida procedural rules for indirect contempt and his conviction should be vacated, the court said in the March 17 opinion (PDF).

The trial judge had sentenced Plank to 30 days in jail in a contempt hearing, but reduced his sentence 17 days later to time served.

He had registered a blood-alcohol level of 0.111 on a breath test administered at the contempt hearing, above the .08 legal limit for drivers, according to the Florida Supreme Court decision. He had been at the court for more than three hours at the time he took the test.

Plank had just one question when given the opportunity to question an officer who said he smelled alcohol on Plank’s “general person,” according to the decision. “What I’d like to know,” Plank said, “is how I got the smell of beer on my clothes when I never spilt one drop on my clothing.”

Under questioning by the judge, Plank confirmed he had driven to the courthouse. He also said that his work hours had been reduced, he was “barely making it,” and he would like to get out of jury duty because he doesn’t get paid for time off. “If you insist, I’ll lose my house and everything,” he said. “I’ll be out on the street with everybody else.”

He had also referred to a drinking problem when previously questioned during jury selection. “I’m going to tell you straight out,” he said. “I’m antiwar, Vietnam draft card burner and avoided the Vietnam war. I’m also 4F.”

Asked about the meaning of 4F, Plank said it meant “Unqualified for military. Another thing is I’m antigovernment. I have not voted since Ronald Reagan was president. I’m not even registered to vote. And I’m also, to tell you the truth, I’m a drunk.”

At the contempt hearing, the trial judge said she didn’t want Plank to lose his house, but she did want him to come to jury duty sober. In a written order, she said Plank had been intoxicated on his arrival at the courthouse, had disrupted jury selection and had distracted other jurors, who had to awaken Plank and said he smelled of alcohol.

The result would have been different in a case of direct criminal contempt, where lawyers aren’t required for defendants facing a jail term of six months or less, the Florida Supreme Court held. A partial dissent argued the right to counsel should apply in all contempt proceedings where the defendant faces jail time.

Hat tip to the Associated Press, which covered the decision.

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