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Judge Bell reprimanded for 'inappropriate incarceration' of domestic violence victim.

A former wife of a criminal defense attorney the judge knew came to court as a victim of domestic violence. But she left the courtroom in custody, arrested for domestic violence herself, and was taken to the jail to spend the night--because the presiding judge acted on his own in deciding she should have been arrested for inciting the physical confrontation.

The Judicial Qualifications Commission concluded that Charlotte County Judge Peter A. Bell's conduct was "misguided but not ill-intentioned" and recommended a public reprimand for his actions that "resulted in the inappropriate incarceration of the victim of a domestic battery case."

Calling it a case of first impression, the Florida Supreme Court, in a November 5 opinion in Case No. SC09-782, approved the JQC's findings and recommended sanctions, and noted that Judge Bell and the JQC had reached an agreement and entered into a stipulation that he had violated Canons 1, 2A, 3B(1), and 3B(2) of the Code of Judicial Conduct.

"According to the stipulation, Judge Bell accepted full responsibility for the conduct and admitted that it should not have occurred and that his actions had the appearance of unfairness, which eroded the confidence of the public in the impartiality and integrity of the court system. Moreover, Judge Bell expressed his regret and apologies for such conduct and, in light of the Florida Canons, he acknowledged that 'his understanding of the effect of his conduct was erroneous' and that he failed to properly appreciate the implementation of his duties as judge," the opinion said.

The charges against Judge Bell stem from his actions on March 14, 2008, when a former husband appeared before him as a defendant in a domestic violence case. Judge Bell found that probable cause existed for the former husband's domestic battery charge, executed by a sheriff's deputy who had interviewed the defendant, the former wife, and their two minor children. Based on interviews, the former wife's injuries, and the location of the incident in the former wife's home, the officer's affidavit stated the defendant was the primary aggressor.

Judge Bell then performed about five minutes research on his computer to determine whether the former wife had a defense because the former husband was in her home and whether a battery had actually occurred. He concluded that the former wife had also committed domestic battery in trying to force her former husband from her home.

The judge ordered sua sponte for the former wife to be taken into custody--despite law enforcement's decision to arrest only the former husband. Also, there was no complaint against the former wife from the former husband, the Charlotte County's Sheriff's Office, or the state attorney's office.

Judge Bell explained to the JQC that he met the former husband approximately 15 years ago while they both worked as sole practitioners. During the marriage, the former couple attended the same church as Judge Bell, and the judge's children babysat for the former couple. After the former couple divorced, the former husband would come before Judge Bell in a professional setting, and Judge Bell reviewed his cases on a monthly basis.

Because the former wife pushed her former husband first, Judge Bell reasoned, she had escalated the argument from verbal to physical and, therefore, was the primary aggressor.

Judge Bell also told the JQC, according to the opinion, that he believed the sheriff's deputy "had arrested the former husband because he was a male, and that the officer had exhibited bias toward the man and leniency toward the woman. Thus, he found gender bias or some other inappropriate conduct on the part of the police officer."

While Judge Bell said he believed he acted lawfully, he also admitted that he would not have had the former wife arrested if she had not been in the courtroom that day.
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Publication:Florida Bar News
Date:Dec 1, 2009
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