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Fort Lauderdale, FL 33315
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DUIs Can Happen to Anyone, Just Ask This Broward County Judge

DUI and reckless driving charges are utterly commonplace. They’re so mundane, in fact, that even Florida state trial judges sometimes face them. As reported in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel this week, Broward Circuit judge Lynn Rosenthal was charged with driving under the influence and reckless driving. On her way to the courthouse, Rosenthal accidentally struck a parked police patrol car. She kept driving and then repeatedly collided with the gate of the judges’ parking lot, in the back of the courthouse. When police questioned her, she denied having consumed any alcohol and submitted to a Breathalyzer. The test results confirmed that there was no alcohol in her system. She refused to submit to a blood test. Rosenthal explained that she had taken an Ambien sleeping pill the night before.

According to her attorney, Judge Rosenthal’s doctor had given her a too-strong dose of the medication, which left her impaired the morning after. A search of her vehicle revealed that Judge Rosenthal also had a bottle of Xanax in the car with her, for which she had a prescription. No illegal substances were found (under Florida law, prescription Ambien is not considered a controlled substance). The Broward district attorney’s office brought two charges against Judge Rosenthal: driving under the influence and reckless driving.

The Criminal Consequences

The government, however, ultimately decided to drop the DUI prosecution. Concluding that it simply did not have the evidence to prove the charge—especially since, as the prosecutor correctly realized, the jury would almost certainly never hear of Judge Rosenthal’s refusal to submit to blood testing. All the prosecution could rely on, then, was the Ambien in Judge Rosenthal’s system. There was, as such, not even a plea bargain necessary to deal with the DUI charge; it was voluntarily dismissed.

The same was not true, however, of the reckless driving charge. Under Florida law, reckless driving is defined as “the operation of a motor vehicle with willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.” Given that Judge Rosenthal struck several pieces of property (and, according to her, decided to get in the car knowing herself to be impaired by Ambien), this charge seemed more likely to stick. As a result—and perhaps out of a desire to save face—Judge Rosenthal decided to employ a seldom-used legal maneuver in dealing with it: she entered a plea of nolo contendere (or “no contest”).

No Contest: The Virtues of an Unorthodox Strategy

In a no-contest plea, the defendant in a criminal proceeding declines to enter a plea—either guilty or not guilty. The defendant simply declines to make a statement one way or the other regarding his or her guilt or innocence. The practical effect of a no-contest plea is largely the same as that of a guilty plea: you are convicted of the charges and sentenced according to the law. However, it carries the critical difference that it saves you from ever having to affirmatively admit any wrongdoing. In addition, it limits the usefulness of the plea in any future civil proceedings—after all, nothing was admitted.

A Useful Reminder

It’s not yet clear what the political consequences of this decision will be for Judge Rosenthal, who was appointed by Governor Rick Scott and who faces an election this year. But she’s been removed (at least for now) from the criminal bench and consigned to civil trials. Her story serves as a reminder that a DUI can happen to anyone and that everyone—even a state court judge—needs experienced DUI counsel like attorney KevinJ. Kulik in Fort Lauderdale on their side.

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