Florida Court Reviewing After Black Man Was Jailed for Penning Critical Letter to Judge

A Florida appeals court heard the case of a man who was jailed for 30 days in 2019 after writing a letter to the judge who dismissed a civil rights lawsuit he filed against the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. 41-year-old Derrick Jenkins spent a month at Palm Beach County Jail after writing a letter slamming Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Howard K. Coates Jr. in 2019. The letter was critical of Coates as “incompetent” and “unfit to serve,” after the judge dismissed the $500 million civil lawsuit Jenkins filed against the sheriff’s office, which he alleged his friend’s time was wasted over a seat belt citation.

In the typed letter sent on Jan. 25, 2019, Jenkins used profanity as he laid out several grievances against Coates, asking he recuse himself from the case demanding compensation from him in federal court. He claimed constitutional rights had been violated.

Jenkins wrote that he believed he didn’t receive a fair and impartial review of his claim that Coates was “incompetent,” said he hopes the public thinks carefully about “selecting or electing” him going forward. “I will hold you personally liable as a man and you’re not immune to jack sh-t,” he wrote. He closed the letter by demanding an investigation of the matter.

Coates responded by filing a contempt charge against him. Coates said the letter included “statements and representations calculated to lessen the authority and dignity of the Court” and “impugned my reputation in the community.”

“You have impugned my reputation in the community by calling me, and I’m not going to repeat it, but an f’ing hypocrite and unfit to serve as a judge,” he told Jenkins, according to court records, “You have accused me of being incompetent. That causes personal harm. But the harm goes beyond me. It goes to the judicial system as well.”

County Judge Robert Panse was assigned to the case in April 2019,  Jenkins served as his own attorney at the trial, claiming the judge should have “thick skin.” Panse found the letter to be “a clear and present danger to the orderly administration of justice.” He  would sentenced Jenkins to six months probation, with the first 30 days to be served in jail.

In an appeal of the conviction, attorneys for Jenkins said that he was “engaged in political speech” and the six-month sentence wasn’t justified. They claimed the name-calling in the letter does not constitute a threat.

“I believe when I wrote my documents, I was using free speech,” Jenkins testified back in 2019. “But I had no intent to cause anyone any harm.”

Attorney Andrew Greenlee represented Jenkins in court on Tuesday, May 18, said the letter wasn’t harmful to the justice system.

“The letter Mr. Jenkins sent could have and should have simply been relegated to the trash bin,” he said.

Florida Assistant Attorney General MaryEllen Farrell said that once Jenkins filed his “very serious, egregious letter that makes accusations and threats against the judge,” he lost his First Amendment rights.

“Certainly when it’s filed in a court file, it’s no longer in a public arena,” Farrell said. “That is a place where free expression and free speech is regularly and traditionally restricted. So when we’re talking about a court file there is a different standard applied.”

“If the case is over and a disgruntled litigant writes the judge and says, ‘Look, I think you did a lousy job, you missed these points,’ what’s wrong with that?” appellate Judge Dorian K. Damoorgian of the Fourth District Court of Appeals questioned. “I mean, judges have to have thick skin too.”

A decision by the appellate court may come within the next few months.

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