Prosecutors to Let Some Cases Slide Those Accused of Battery, Bad Checks may Get Break

By Debbie Salamone | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted May 19, 1997

Shoving people or writing bad checks won't necessarily land you in court any more in Orange and Osceola counties.

Prosecutors are tightening up on the types of cases they take to court. Increasing workloads and trouble prosecuting some domestic violence cases are behind it.

Starting July 1, prosecutors generally won't file misdemeanor battery charges in fights unless someone is clearly hurt. In some cases now, people are slapped or pushed but don't suffer bruises. Prosecutors also won't file misdemeanor worthless check charges against people who write bad checks for less than $150.

" It's the first time we've made a decision to curtail the intake of cases," said Orange-Osceola Chief Assistant State Attorney Bill Vose.

Law enforcers and victim advocates have mixed reactions. Some worry that spouse abusers will figure they're getting a free shot. "I think it's a step backward for victims, because the whole purpose of a progressive domestic violence policy is to intervene when they are at the lower level - to break the cycle, to change behavior. You don't wait until it's more serious," said Orlando police Sgt. Donna Rivera, who heads a county task force charged with developing a community response to domestic violence.

Rivera and other law officers said they will continue to arrest people to break up fights. But in many of those cases, prosecutors simply won't follow up.

Orlando lawyer Mark NeJame, president of the Central Florida Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, said he thinks prosecutors are trying to find a balance in a politically sensitive area.

"We've all seen too many cases where people are falsely arrested, falsely accused because there was such an overreaction to the issue initially," he said.

Last year, attorneys in Orange County prosecuted nearly 3,500 misdemeanor cases of domestic violence. Statistics don't reveal how many people had injuries.

Vose says the policy change is needed because juries usually don't convict without victim injury. He said prosecutors are losing most of their domestic battery trials, sending a counterproductive message to abusers.

The new policy - in which law officers also must tighten up on evidence collection - should enhance the rate of convictions and tell abusers they can't get away with it, Vose said.

With the new bad check rules, people who deliberately con merchants still can be prosecuted as thieves. But most worthless check cases don't fall in that category, Vose said.

" The majority . . . are people who treat a checking account like credit cards," Vose said. "Most people aren't intending to really steal. They are intending to extend their credit."

Last year attorneys in Orange County prosecuted 5,250 misdemeanor worthless check cases. Most people enter a court-diversion program and pay restitution.

Vose said that because of their limited resources, prosecutors no longer can act as bill collectors for businesses.

Last year, 107 prosecutors in Orange and Osceola counties handled 32,200 cases, including murder, robbery, burglary and drug crimes. They prosecuted about 60 percent of the cases law enforcers forwarded to them.

" I think it's good they have finally started to exercise some appropriate discretion," NeJame said

Source: Orlando Sentinel