Florida Supreme Court Finds Lawyer Guilty of Professional Misconduct—Rejects a Referee’s Conclusions
On November 7th, 2019, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the decision of an independent referee, which found a Miami-based criminal defense lawyer not guilty of professional misconduct. In the case of The Florida Bar v. Jonathan Stephen Schwartz, the state’s highest court disapproved of a referee’s findings, determining that she misapplied an ethical rule. Here, our West Palm Beach bar complaints & grievances attorneys provide an overview of the decision and explain the relevant rule.
Supreme Court Findings: Misuse of Exhibits
Jonathan Stephen Schwartz has decades of experience as a criminal defense lawyer in South Florida. According to the allegations raised against him, Mr. Schwartz altered black and white images of a photograph of a police lineup. Essentially, he replaced his client’s image in the photograph with that of another suspect. Otherwise, the picture was made to look identical, and even included the same circle that was in the initial image. In a pre-trial deposition, this lawyer used the altered materials when questioning a witness.
A bar complaint was filed against him. In reviewing the allegations, a referee determined that he did not engage in improper professional conduct. The referee based much of her findings on the fact that Mr. Schwartz’s motives were to help his client by undermining the state’s use of witness identification. However, the Florida Supreme Court found that the referee erred in this assessment.
Bar Rule 4-8.4(c): Lawyers May Be Sanctioned for Dishonesty, Deceit, or Misrepresentation
In its decision, the Florida Supreme Court focused on the application and meaning of Bar Rule 4-8.4(c). Under the rule, legal professionals are prohibited from engaging in “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.” In order to establish a violation of this rule, the Florida Bar must prove that the legal professional in question acted with intent.
In contrast to the referee’s report, the Florida Supreme Court states that a lawyer’s motives—even if simply trying to help their client—are not determinative in regards to this specific professional rule. By altering police lineups and demonstrating them to the alleged victim in an intentionally misleading manner, Mr. Schwartz violated the rules. The case is being remanded and a new referee is being appointed to determine what discipline is appropriate for the lawyer given the findings of misconduct.
An important lesson to take away from these proceedings is that lawyers can be sanctioned for dishonesty and deceit even if they are doing so for the sole purpose of furthering their client’s interests. If you are facing a complaint or grievance, you should call an experienced attorney right away.
Get Help From Our Florida Bar Complaint Attorneys Today
At Pike & Lustig, LLP, our Florida bar complaint attorneys have the skills and experience needed to represent lawyers facing potential disciplinary action. We will protect your rights, reputation, and career. To set up a fully confidential consultation, please contact us today. We have law office locations in West Palm Beach, Miami, and Palm Beach Gardens.