Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Contemplation

As you take time over the next few days and weeks to enjoy your family and friends, please remember that the holidays are not joyous times for many in our community. There are people - perhaps yourself, your friends, neighbors, co-workers, or members of your congregation - that are struggling. Bereavement, financial woes, health concerns, and relationship issues are some of the things that can conspire to rob us of our joy at this (or any) time of the year.

An attitude of gratitude doesn't just happen. When we are intentional in developing it, an amazing thing happens. Joy returns to our lives. When we take the time to reach out and help others - whether it's with our time, talents or money - our own lives are enriched.

I am truly thankful for the opportunity to help victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse through CourtWatch. And I am thankful for those of you who have supported our efforts with your time, expertise, and financial support.

I received this email from a victim of domestic violence who had a hearing this week after I told her CourtWatch would be attending:

Thank you so much, you know very well what your support means to me. Please help me to pray for the best.
Yesterday I stopped by Harbor House's office before leaving the courthouse to go about the many errands that needed to be done in order to prepare for our family's Thanksgivinig feast. As I was wishing the staff and volunteers a Happy Thanksgiving, I noticed a solitary woman, perhaps 40 years old, sitting quietly alone in the waiting room. One eye was swollen shut from an obvious beating she had recently received.

I assume she was waiting to find out if the judge was going to grant her request for a hearing and provide a temporary injunction.

As I walked to my car, thinking of her plight, I wished I had thought to invite her to our family's dinner. For the umpteenth time, I realized that I could have very easily been sitting where she was. And I thought about how much harder it is to leave a relationship during the holidays.

I'm told that victims often don't seek shelter in the days immediately preceding a holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas. The desire to keep one's family intact is strong. Yet Harbor House's waiting room told a different tale.

It reinforced for me how valuable our program, as well as other advocacy organizations that serve victims of family violence, are to the community.

I encourage everyone to invest in the work that CourtWatch does so that we can continue to be a reassuring presence in the courtroom for victims. If everyone on our mailing list donated just $25, we would be able to fund a part-time volunteer coordinator for one year.

There's much about which we can be thankful. Please take the next few minutes to view this video of a song by Josh Groban and decide how you can be the change in your own circle of influence.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Threat Assessment 101

It warms my heart when a judge expresses great concern for a victim in a high lethality situation.  And when he or she keeps the no contact order in place even when the victim asks to have contact.

Last week, CourtWatch monitored the request of Neil Abraham Ramroop to modify his bond and allow him to have contact with his victim, the mother of his two children (2 1/2 years and 10 months old).

The defendant was arrested on 10/14/10 for kidnapping, robbery, domestic battery, and tampering with a victim/witness to hinder communication with law enforcement. Mr. Ramroop allegedly abducted his victim as she was leaving a night class at Valencia State College, threatened to stab her in the neck and up her nose with a pen as he was taking her to his car, stole cash and her cell phone, and threatened to kill her. He allegedly drove her to their apartment, battered her, and ultimately returned her to the VCC parking lot. Throughout the ordeal, he repeatedly abused her verbally. He also stated, "You think a restraining order will stop me? I'll find you, I'll kill off your family one by one" and "I'll leave a bloody mess for you to clean up."

In addition to requesting contact with the victim, Mr. Ramroop requested that his GPS monitor be removed because the cost ($84/week) was a hardship due to his unemployment.

The victim, a very petite woman who sought an injunction immediately after the incident (which was later dismissed due to her failure to appear), testified that she is no longer afraid of the defendant. Judge Rand Wallis asked her several probing questions about their children and any prior incidents. He read an email that the assigned prosecutor, Pamela Smith, sent to the Court about how high the defendant scored on the lethality indicators test (Ms. Smith had a colleague covering for her in this hearing). The defendant has, on at least one occasion, threatened suicide - an extremely big red flag.

When I hear that, and particularly when there are small children involved, I am alarmed for the victim and their children. Because once someone decides to commit suicide, they have nothing to lose and are much more likely to try to "take their loved one(s)" with them. Or prevent anyone else from "having" their "loved one(s)."

Judge Wallis denied the defendant's motion without prejuduce, stating that he would like to hear testimony from the police officer who administered the questionnaire (which occurred at 3:00 AM immediately after the incident) to the victim in order to more accurately assess her testimony.

CourtWatch commends Judge Wallis and Assistant State's Attorney Pamela Smith for trying to keep this victim from becoming another name on the fatality list that we maintain. If this was school, they'd both get an A+ for the way they handled this case.

It is our hope that Mr. Ramroop's victim in this case will seek counseling from Harbor House as this case works its way through the court system.

To see what a threat assessment questionnaire includes, or to perform your own free domestic violence assessement online, visit the Mosaic Threat Assessment website

If you are in an abusive relationship, we urge you to seek the assistance of a trained advocate at your local domestic violence shelter in order to develop a personalized safety plan. Seventy-five percent (75%) of fatalities occur with the victim attempts to leave an abusive relationship. Most of those victims attempted to do so without a comprehensive safety plan in place.

2/4/11: The State dropped the charges against Mr. Ramroop after the victim declined to participate in the prosecution.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Bureaucratic abuse in Orange County

From time to time, CourtWatch comes across cases that appear, on the surface, fairly straightforward. And then we encounter cases that are rather complex. This is one such case. This is the story of one man’s apparent attitude of entitlement and members of the County government that seem to support and perpetuate that attitude.

Farling Rivera, a secretary in the Probation Unit of Orange County Corrections has been married to William Rivera, Manager of Human Resources for Orange County Corrections, for 7 years. They work in the same building and are currently in the throes of a divorce.

On February 1, 2010 the Orange County Sheriff’s Department was called to the Rivera home for an alleged domestic violence situation. Once Mr. Rivera identified himself and his position with Corrections to law enforcement, the deputies chose not to arrest either party and indicated that they believed it to be a situation of mutual combat. Mrs. Rivera subsequently applied for a temporary injunction. Mr. Rivera reciprocated 3 days later. A hearing date was set for March, with no temporary injunction granted to either party.

In March, Judge Bronson denied William’s request to return to the home in order to retrieve additional personal belongings.

A permanent injunction was granted to Farling on June 1, 2010 for six months.

On June 2, 2010, OCSO Deputy Luna served the final injunction on William and told him that he was not to return to their mutual place of employment. Rivera defied the court order the following day by coming to the work address (which was prohibited by the court order) and remaining there, with Management’s knowledge, for approximately 6 hours. When he learned that a deputy was on the way to arrest him for violating the injunction that afternoon, he was aided and abetted by Corrections Management to elude them. He was escorted to a golf cart that quickly took him to his vehicle so that he might evade arrest.

William has returned to the home, which is expressly prohibited by the injunction, on several occasions. He repeatedly told his wife that he was very powerful and that she could not stop him from doing what he wanted. Sadly, it appears as though the County is sending her the same message.

CourtWatch is shocked at the conduct of Corrections managers by their collusion with an employee in his effort to evade arrest. CourtWatch is also disappointed at how the Office of Professional Standards and the County Attorney’s Office have responded to our inquiries relating to the conduct of Corrections management in this matter. We are perplexed as to why the County Attorney, whose job it is to interpret the law and represent the County, has to ask Corrections what they can release to us in response to our public records requests under Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes. Finally, CourtWatch is extremely concerned that there appears to exist either (1) a gross lack of documentation or (2) an effort to withhold information from our organization by the Sheriff’s Department as it relates to the times they were called to the Rivera residence.

Mr. Rivera is clearly well connected with law enforcement in our community. The apparent abuse of power by him and others on his behalf should not be condoned. It would indeed appear as though Mr. Rivera’s position has given him preferential treatment by several County agencies.

A comprehensive timeline of events, and supporting exhibits is available at the links below:
  • Timeline of events
  • Exhibit A: February 1, 2010 police report
  • Exhibit B: June 3, 2010 police report
  • Exhibit G: Memo 6/8 from Sr. Corrections Officer Smedley to Management detailing his concerns regarding their handling of the situation
  • Exhibit I: Response 6/8 from Jill Hobbs, Acting Deputy Chief of Administration
  • Exhibit H: CourtWatch correspondence 6/29 with Commissioner Brummer requesting investigation
  • Exhibit C: CourtWatch correspondence 9/24 - 9/26 with County Attorney's Office
  • Exhibit D: CourtWatch correspondence 9/29 with Office of Professional Standards
  • Exhibit E: Sheriff's Department report 9/30 showing no calls for service all year to the Rivera home
  • Exhibit F: CourtWatch correspondence 10/5 with County Attorney's Office
It should also be noted that only AFTER the media began to inquire about this situation last week, did CourtWatch receive a copy of the 6/8 email from Corrections Officer Smedley to Management that we verbally requested on 8/26. It was made available for pickup 10/12.

A motion to dismiss Mr. Rivera’s criminal case 2010-MM-010839-A-O (violation of injunction) was denied without prejudice on October 11, 2010. The prosecution is in its early stages and a trial date has not yet been set.

CourtWatch intends to not only follow the court cases until they are concluded, but also pursue accountability for the county officials whose collusion with a high ranking Corrections Department official has left his victim in fear for her safety.

Mr. Rivera's next court date is 11/24/10 for a Motion to Modify the injunction in the Domestic Relations case.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

An expensive election

No, I'm not talking about the 2010 general election. I'm referring to the continuing cost to taxpayers of having elected Judge N. James Turner to the bench in 2008.

As I monitored portions of Judge Turner's hearing before the Judicial Qualifications Commission last week, I couldn't help but feel that the manner in which we elect judges is fraught with peril.

Most of the judges that CourtWatch monitors do a good job on the bench. Others have exhibited disrespectful attitudes to the individuals in their courtrooms (yelling at or demeaning the attorneys and/or others from the bench), some seem hesitant to impose sentences that do more than give a little slap on the wrist, and others provide what appears to be "assembly line" justice.

CourtWatch never monitored Judge Turner because he was assigned to Osceola County. However, I did have occasion to witness his performance at the candidate's panel sponsored by the League of Women Voters in 2008. Two comments he made were memorable: (1) he thought he should be elected because he had been in the race longer than any other candidate; and (2) he had the most yard signs.

Perhaps he was simply trying to be amusing. But his remark struck me as flippant. When asked why we should vote for them, most candidates say that they'll be fair, impartial and uphold the law. Sometimes they talk about the crisis facing the court system as a result of budge cuts. Or they may offer ideas about how to improve the juvenile justice system.

Sadly, the majority of citizens know little or nothing about the men and women who have the power to impact individual lives in a profound way - particularly in the Domestic Relations courtrooms.

The Judge Turner investigation, in addition to Seminole County Judge Ralph Eriksson's recent reprimand by the Supreme Court, prompted me to learn more about how someone becomes a judge.

There are two ways that one may become a judge:
  • Any attorney who has been a member of the Florida Bar for 5 years or more may become a candidate for judge (a race costs in the range of $200k to conduct) in the general election (held in even-numbered years). Additionally, they must live in the district in which they plan to serve and must be a registered voter. There is no interview process, no vetting of candidates, no nothing.
  • If a seat becomes available due to retirement or death, a Judicial Nominating Commission interviews candidates to replace that judge. The JNC presents up to 6 names to the governor, who then has 60 days to select the new judge. After serving for a full year, if the new judge wishes to retain their job, they must run for election in the next election cycle.

    Such is the case later this month for vacancy that will soon be left by Judge Cynthia Mackinnon (who does a very good job in our injunction court). The interview process involves completing a 40-page application and providing 3 years worth of tax returns or a net worth statement. The interviews will be held on Tuesday, November 16th and are open to the public. Details here.
Last week, Judge Turner testified that his entire legal career consisted of tax, insurance and employment law. No domestic relations or criminal experience. He worked at four different firms in the first 8 years of his career, until he hung out his own shingle in 1991. He indicated that he was unfamiliar with his responsibilities as judge, and admitted that the work was exhausting and it drained him.   He also appeared to have little to no experience in working with staff.

There was testimony that he had put all his financial "eggs" into one basket (his campaign to win the judgeship) and had no contingency plan if he lost. I imagine this put great pressure upon him. He admitted that as a candidate, he tried to be as "sycophantic" (his words, not mine) as possible. He showed poor judgment in building relationships with, and seeking the support of several political activists for what is supposed to be a non-political race.

Finally, allegations of inappropriate conduct with all four JAs (Judicial Assistants) in the 16 months he was on the bench have been well covered by the media.

CourtWatch believes that all candidates for judge should be subjected to the vetting that is done when filling a mid-term vacancy. A candidate should have experience across a broad range of the law. A candidate should be able to manage their finances well. If this were done, the citizens could at least have some degree of confidence that the individuals on the ballot have met some basic criteria that would make them suitable for the bench.

For most of us, selecting a judge on a ballot is like flipping a coin. Two years ago, citizens in the Ninth Judicial Circuit made a costly choice with their votes. We're continuing to pay the salary of a judge who has been banned from the courthouse and we're paying to investigate the allegations against him.