Under current law, it is a felony to attack prosecutors, judges, bailiffs, law enforcement officers and corrections officers — but it’s still only a misdemeanor to commit the same violent act against defense lawyers and public defenders.
A bill that would fix that oversight, which motivated a brutal assault on a public defender last year, is now on its way to the Senate floor.
The Senate Rules Committee unanimously advanced a measure (SB 384) that would simply add defense lawyers and public defenders to the list of people upon whom an attack during a criminal court proceeding is a felony.
“The only integral party to the proceedings who do not enjoy this protection are usually the ones at most risk of harm, the defense attorneys,” said Fleming Island Republican Sen. Jennifer Bradley, a lawyer in private life and the bill’s sponsor. “This bill corrects that injustice.”
SB 384 will next be up for discussion by the full chamber April 12, after which Senators will hold a final vote. Its twin in the House (HB 71) by Republican Reps. Patt Maney and Bobby Payne is identically poised.
The legislation takes inspiration from a Nov. 15 incident in an Alachua County courtroom. Defense attorney Eric Atria was preparing to speak on behalf of his client, Obadiah Dillard, when the career criminal sucker punched Atria to have the case thrown out as a mistrial.
In a phone call from jail afterward, Dillard giddily recounted his actions and played down the potential consequences. He reasoned the attack amounted to simple battery, a first-degree misdemeanor.
“Fortunately for me, he cracked my skull,” Atria told members of a House committee in February, noting Dillard also broke a tooth and gave him a concussion. “And I say fortunately because had he not done those things, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. But because he did, the State Attorney’s Office was able to file second-degree felony charges against him, making it more of a big deal.”
The attack on Atria isn’t unique. Macclenny Republican Rep. Chuck Brannan, a former U.S. Marshal, said he witnessed something similar decades ago. And in 2019, Broward County Assistant Public Defender Julie Chase was sent to the hospital after prisoner William Green punched her from behind during a bond court hearing.
Maney said changes his and Bradley’s bill propose will provide all criminal court officers equal protection under the law.
“It protects the defense attorneys just like it protects everybody else in the courtroom,” he said. “It provides for a safe space for the people’s business to be conducted. And if somebody violates that law, it provides for an enhanced penalty so you don’t get a get-out-of-jail-free card by beating up your lawyer.”