Gov. DeSantis signs bill raising penalties for attacking defense attorneys, public defenders
Image via Alachua County.

Eric Atria Obadiah Dillard attack
‘When people go to a courthouse, they ought to feel safe, and it ought to be safe.’

Battering a defense attorney or public defender will soon be a felony — the same as it is now for attacks on prosecutors and judges — due to a new law going into effect next month.

The measure (SB 384), which state lawmakers unanimously approved in April, addresses an unfortunate oversight in Florida law that penalizes courtroom aggression less if it’s aimed at lawyers representing a criminal defendant.

Harming police, correctional officers, prosecutors and judges in a courtroom counts as a felony, with the severity of punishment dependent on the brutality of the act.

For defense lawyers and public defenders, however, it’s a misdemeanor.

That changes July 1 because of SB 384, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Monday afternoon.

Fleming Island Republican Sen. Jennifer Bradley filed the measure in January as an identical companion to legislation (HB 71) Walton Beach Republican Rep. Patt Maney and Republican Palatka Rep. Bobby Payne filed a month prior.

Maney called it “a simple bill” that codifies fair and equal protections under the law in the most fitting of places.

“When people go to a courthouse, they ought to feel safe, and it ought to be safe,” he said.

The measure’s inspiration was a vicious assault in November on Gainesville attorney Eric Atria, whose client, a career criminal named Obadiah Dillard, sucker punched him during the trial to have the case thrown out.

In a phone call from jail afterward, Dillard gleefully recounted his crime and downplayed the potential consequence. He reasoned the attack amounted to simple battery, a first-degree misdemeanor. And it would have been, except that he cracked Atria’s skull, gave him a concussion and broke a tooth — enough damage to result in Dillard being charged with a second-degree felony.

Speaking by phone less than an hour after the Governor’s office confirmed DeSantis had signed the bill, Atria told Florida Politics it felt humbling to see the law changed in response to his hardship.

“The fact that something that protects everybody came out of my misfortune makes me feel better about having gone through it,” he said. “I took one for the team, for all criminal defense attorneys in general. It’s a remarkable turn of events.”

Also remarkable is the timing of the bill’s signing, which occurred the same day that Dillard’s trial for aggravated battery against Atria concluded and jurors went into deliberation.

Atria, who spoke from just outside the courtroom where the trial had taken place, said SB 384 is proof that while there were many contentious issues during the Legislative Session, a lot of good was done as well.

“There is a lot of common, bipartisan work being done,” he said.

An episode similar to Atria’s occurred in 2019 when Broward County Assistant Public Defender Julie Chase was sent to the hospital after a prisoner punched her from behind during a bond hearing. Fortunately, she sustained no serious injuries.

The assailant was William Green, a man with a known history of mental illness who was neither properly medicated nor restrained during the proceeding.

The video appalled Maney, a lawyer, when he saw it. HB 71 was the first bill he filed for the 2023 Legislative Session.

“It provides for a safe space for the people’s business to be conducted,” Maney said during the bill’s first committee stop in February. “You don’t get a get-out-of-jail-free card by beating up your own lawyer.”

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.

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