An interesting thing happened in the Broward County Courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale on Monday, as former NFL receiving great Chad Johnson was given a 30 day jail sentence for almost nothing at all. Johnson (née Ochocinco) was in court to plead guilty to a probation violation for having missed a meeting with his probation officer. Johnson is on probation after pleading no contest to a domestic violence charge for an altercation with his wife at the time, former reality TV star Evelyn Lozada. Johnson blamed miscommunication for the missed meeting, but in pleading guilty he was taking responsibility for his mistake, just as he didn’t fight the domestic violence charge that led to the end of his marriage. Missing a required probation meeting is a crime in itself and we are not discounting that. But he had worked out a deal with the prosecution that would have avoided jail time in exchange for community service, mandatory counseling sessions, and three additional months of probation.
Johnson was mere seconds from finalizing the deal when the following occurred…
(if the video doesn’t play, click here for the TMZ link to the video)
Judge Kathleen McHugh asks Johnson if he is satisfied with his attorney (local criminal defense and family law attorney Adam Swickle), and then the judge says that Johnson should thank him because he’s a great attorney. Johnson acknowledges that and gives his attorney a soft pat on the behind. Not really a big deal. Except that the crowd in the courtroom, presumably full because Chad Johnson is in the house, emits some chuckles (including from the bailiff, an employee of the Broward County Sheriff’s office). This causes Judge McHugh to totally over-react (in our opinion) and accuse Johnson of making a joke of the proceedings. Notice that Johnson was not laughing, he was just acknowledging the work of his attorney as the judge had instructed him to do. He has no control over the on-lookers in court, and watching the video it seems that if the courtroom had been silent, Judge McHugh would not have said anything. In fact, she started to continue on about the plea deal, but then the chuckles were more than she could bear as she says three times “The whole courtroom was laughing!”
Again, Chad Johnson was not laughing, but Judge McHugh could not stand the fact that people in the courtroom were chuckling and it obviously angered her, to the point that she refused to accept the plea deal, sentencing Johnson to 30 days in Broward County jail. For a soft pat on his attorney’s behind. Or more accurately, for the reaction of people in the courtroom to the soft pat. Nothing in the video makes me think Johnson was taking these proceedings lightly. The bailiff? Perhaps. Note to Judge McHugh: the crowd was not laughing at you, nor at your proceedings. They were amused by the small breach in etiquette.
Look, Chad Johnson is an NFL star and it’s hard sometimes to have sympathy for celebrities when they do stupid things. And giving his attorney, an officer of the court, a pat on the ass was no doubt a stupid thing to do. But not that stupid, because it’s entirely harmless. It’s the most harmless thing in the world. And he was not looking to provoke laughter, that much is clear as Johnson looks forlornly over his shoulder at the crowd that had laughed.
This raises a bigger issue that as residents of Fort Lauderdale we take extremely seriously: is this justice in Fort Lauderdale?
The fact is that over the course of our lives in this great city, even for those of us that consider ourselves good people and live our lives in a way that we hope will keep us out of Judge McHugh’s courtroom, a significant portion of us will find ourselves in the Broward County Courthouse for one reason or another. We may not be accustomed to being in a courtroom, and do we want a slight breach of courtroom etiquette to land us in the pokey for 30 days? That is terrifying. The state locking a person away from society is the ultimate power the state wields, and the fact that one might face jail time based on the chuckles of the peanut gallery is not the society we hope we have built, Judge McHugh notwithstanding.
This blogger happened to be having dinner with two attorney friends Monday night and asked their opinions. The first (a corporate lawyer who never sees a courtroom) pointed out that he would prefer decisions made about an individual’s freedom not be made by an angry person; of course a judge is just an individual, but they wield great power and they ought to apply it in a sober manner without letting emotion affect their ruling. The second attorney at this dinner (a litigator that is in court every week) said he was not at all surprised by the judge’s reaction, for better or worse, as Broward County criminal judges make rulings in anger all the time.
We have no knowledge about Judge McHugh’s work other than this one video, but color us unimpressed. We understand the jail sentence was legally for the probation violation rather than the butt pat, but without the laughter in the courtroom Chad Johnson would be somewhere other than a jail cell for the next 30 days. That seems ridiculous to this blogger. If you ever find yourself in court remember to follow all of the unwritten rules that you may not know, and if you have the misfortune to be in Judge McHugh’s courtroom pray that nobody finds you amusing.
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