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    Pinellas judges get an edge in traffic court

    One judge got free legal representation; a second got a break from a fellow judge.

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published November 30, 2001

    Judges get traffic tickets, too. Sometimes they fly along Pinellas County roadways a little too quickly or with too little care, just like the rest of us.

    But two Pinellas County judges in recent years received something most drivers fighting traffic tickets don't get: free legal representation and a helping hand from a fellow judge who erased a potential license suspension.

    County Judge Paul Levine got the free representation in 1998 and last year. He hired two local attorneys who sometimes appear in his court representing criminal defendants. Neither lawyer charged the judge a dime.

    County Judge Myra McNary got the helping hand from a colleague. Her driver's license was about to be suspended last year after she failed to attend traffic school for a careless driving ticket.

    She called another judge, who voided her suspension as though she had attended the school.

    Bruce Rogow, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, called the cases troubling and "insensitive to the appearance of partiality that the public might draw."

    "I think this is traffic stuff and people are sometimes cavalier about how things happen in traffic court."

    'Guilty, guilty'

    Levine, 46, doesn't quibble about the two speeding tickets he got. He said he gladly paid fines totaling $222.

    "Guilty, guilty on both," the judge said, laughing.

    Judicial canons appear to prohibit judges from accepting gifts or favors from people who have, and might in the future, practice in the judge's courtroom.

    But Levine said he didn't violate that code of judicial conduct because the lawyers are old friends who didn't expect any favor in return.

    "It was a professional courtesy," Levine said on Thursday. "I've known these lawyers for 21, 22 years. The reason for the rule is so lawyers don't feel beholden to judges. These lawyers didn't expect anything in return. Their clients go to jail as much as the clients of other attorneys. There's no favoritism."

    The Florida Supreme Court's Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, interpreting judicial canons, said in an opinion on March 1, 2000: "A judge may not accept gifts, favors, bequests or loans from lawyers or their firms if they have come or are likely to come before the judge."

    The committee chairman declined to comment Thursday.

    Levine said he notified State Attorney Bernie McCabe that he had been represented privately by attorneys Ronnie Crider and Kim Rivellini. McCabe's office had no problem with that, Levine said.

    Had McCabe objected, Levine said, he would recuse himself on any cases involving the lawyers. McCabe could not be reached for comment.

    Rivellini works for prominent Clearwater defense attorney Denis de Vlaming, an attorney who charges up to $250 an hour for his services. De Vlaming and Crider are old friends of Levine's, the judge said.

    De Vlaming said Rivellini worked less than 20 minutes on the case and was already in court on other business when she appeared in court and entered a no contest plea on Levine's behalf.

    Pinellas Judge Robert Morris Jr., who could not be reached for comment, withheld a formal finding of guilt, meaning no points were assessed against Levine's license. That's routine in traffic court.

    "It wasn't litigated, it's not contested, and it's so minor, it wasn't that big a deal," de Vlaming said. "When so little time is involved, we don't charge anybody, no matter who it is."

    De Vlaming valued the work Rivellini did at $20 to $35. He could not say what price he would quote anyone walking in off the street asking for representation on a similar matter.

    Crider, who could not be reached for comment, appeared to do considerably more work on Levine's 1998 ticket for driving 30 mph in a 15 mph zone near Honeymoon Island. He prepared a motion to suppress evidence from a radar gun. That motion was ultimately dropped.

    Crider entered a no contest plea on Levine's behalf before Judge William Blackwood, who withheld a formal finding of guilt. Again, no points were assessed against Levine's license.

    Levine said judges know so many lawyers that it is impossible to find representation on minor matters such as traffic tickets without hiring someone local, often a friend, who appears in front of him frequently.

    Levine said no lawyer from outside Pinellas would travel to take such a minor case.

    "Hire an attorney from Orlando for this?" Levine asked. "My friend, you're living in a dream world."

    Traffic school

    The case of Judge McNary involved a minor fender-bender in April 2000. She was cited by the Florida Highway Patrol for careless driving.

    Rather than pay the full $80 fine, McNary elected to attend driving school. By doing so, the fine was reduced to about $67 and, if she completed the school, no points would be assessed against her.

    McNary, 41, who said she was busy with her re-election campaign, didn't attend the driving school. The county began the process that would have led to an automatic license suspension.

    Pinellas Judge Bill Overton, working in the court's traffic division, said McNary telephoned and asked him to void the suspension after she paid a $16 penalty for not attending the school. Overton agreed.

    Trouble is, McNary never attended the school.

    Overton said he thought McNary had, though he can't remember her telling him that. McNary said that was a "misunderstanding" on his part and Overton's order was misworded.

    The net result: McNary didn't have to go to traffic school and had no points assessed against her license.

    "In my mind, it really wasn't that big a deal," McNary said. "It wasn't some cloak and dagger thing. It was pretty routine."

    Rogow, the law professor, said Overton shouldn't have heard the case, even if judicial rules didn't prohibit him hearing it.

    "More people get their sense of fairness of the justice system from the county court than a higher court," Rogow said.

    "More people are exposed to county court. I think there is a great need to be sensitive to how county courts are perceived. They really set the tone for the community's acceptance of or belief in the trustworthiness of the system."

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