Home » Blog » Criminal Defense » Time for Miami Judge Rodriguez-Chomat to reverse bird-flipping contempt jailing. (UPDATE: The judge reversed his contempt order and sentence)

Time for Miami Judge Rodriguez-Chomat to reverse bird-flipping contempt jailing. (UPDATE: The judge reversed his contempt order and sentence)

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Penelope Soto says that Xanax is her illegal drug of choice. Just about clearly strung out on silliness-inspiring drugs — despite her in-court denial of any drug influence — Ms. Soto appeared before Miami trial judge Jorge Rodriguez-Chomat on February 4 (thanks to the online ABA Journal for the heads up). First he denied her court-appointed counsel for her bond hearing and case, after she said she was flush with valuable jewelry. Then, after setting the bond at $5,000, the judge lightly — if not partially sarcastically — waved to Ms. Soto on the camera saying "bye-bye", with Ms. Soto’s waving back and saying "adios", which does not seem at all calculated to be said for dehumanizing purposes, including since both Ms. Soto and the judge are Hispanic, and because Spanish is so widely spoken in Miami.

At least where I practice law, bond is set for purposes of assuring the defendant’s presence at trial and for addressing any harm the defendant may cause to himself or others pending trial. Here, after Ms. Soto said "adios" (unless the video omits something else), the judge promptly called her back, doubled the bond to $10,000, and said "adios" back — after confirming to Ms. Soto that his bond doubling was serious — which in context sounded like sarcasm, vindictiveness or both. The doubling of her bond had nothing to do with assuring her return to court nor with dealing with any danger from Ms. Soto (and what danger existed other than any danger from ingesting harmful drugs?).

Ms. Soto walked away from this abuse of judicial power, and improvidently said "f*ck you" while flipping the bird. The judge promptly called her back, asked if he had heard her correctly, and then found her in direct contempt of court and imposed a thirty-day penalty .

What is wrong with this picture from the actions of the judge (I am not going  here into the actions of Ms. Soto, who was apparently a neophyte in court, seeing that the judge was informed she had no prior criminal charges)? What is wrong includes:

– The judge denied court-appointed counsel on the basis of an apparently drugged-out Soto’s braggadocio about jewelry possession, rather than giving her a chance to give a general listing and value of her jewelry, even if on paper if the judge did not have the patience to wait for such a listing.

– The judge got the mirroring behavior thrown back at him. He lightheartedly or sarcastically "bye byed" Ms. Soto, who responded in lighthearted kind with "adios". He rammed a doubled $5,000 bond into pro se Ms. Soto, without considering giving her a chance to come back in a few hours in a more sober state to re-state her request for court-appointed counsel and for her to communicate in a more sober state. He got a bird-flipping in response to his own disrespectful conduct towards this pro se, drug-influenced, courtroom neophyte caught like an inebriated deer in the headlights before a very experienced judge.

– If the judge was going to find Ms. Soto in direct contempt, he should have not put her at a further disadvantage by asking her an incriminating question about whether he had heard her correctly to say "f*ck you." If he was going to do that, he first should have advised her of her Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and of her Sixth Amendment right to counsel before considering whether to answer his question.

Praised be the cameraperson (an official one at that) for recording this entire event. Who obtained the video so quickly, and what informed them to do so? Over six million people, and counting, have watched the video, which apparently is prominently linked when one logs into YouTube. 

It is now time for Judge Rodriguez-Chomat to reverse his contempt conviction and sentence of Ms. Soto. If not, I think it is time for him to seek another line of work.

UPDATE (February 10, 2013): On February 8, 2013, Judge Rodriguez-Chomat — who once got into house floor fisticuffs when a state legislator — reversed his contempt conviction and sentence of Penelope Soto after she apologized. This whole incident was a two-way street, but at the hearing where he reversed the contempt conviction, Judge Rodriguez-Chomat accepted none of the responsibility for himself.