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Disgraced lawyer mistakenly released from jail early

NEW PORT RICHEY — Back when Jessica Miller could still practice law, she had this habit of not showing up for court when she was supposed to. A judge even put her behind bars because of it.

Now Miller's latest problem is that she's not in jail when she's supposed to be.

Only this time it's not her fault. It's the fault of the Pasco County jail, which mistakenly released the disbarred lawyer halfway through her 90-day sentence for indirect criminal contempt of court.

"We process 19,000 inmates a year and I'm told they don't make errors very often," said Pasco sheriff's spokesman Doug Tobin. "But in this particular case, they made an error."

Miller was taken into custody June 23 after a judge found her guilty of disobeying his commands, chief among them an order to appear in court, which Miller ignored to take an out-of-state vacation. Circuit Judge Shawn Crane then sentenced her July 8.

Take credit for time served, add the five days for good behavior the jail automatically assigns for each month of incarceration, and Miller should have been released near this past weekend.

Instead, online records show the jail let her go Aug. 6 — just 43 days into her 90-day sentence.

The problem, Tobin said, is that a corrections deputy entered a typo for her sentencing date. Instead of typing 7/9 for July 9 (the jail automatically adds a day when someone is booked), a deputy mistakenly entered 6/9 for June 9.

That gave Miller an extra month behind bars that she didn't actually serve.

The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office didn't know Miller had been released early until a call Friday from the St. Petersburg Times. The judge didn't know about it, either.

But Miller, a 30-year-old mother of two in Holiday, won't be free much longer. Assistant State Attorney Mary Handsel said the judge told her to get in touch with Miller's lawyer and set a court date this week for Miller to turn herself back in to the jail.

"I'd rather she be given the chance to turn herself in," Handsel said. "But if she doesn't turn herself in … then I'll ask a judge to issue a warrant for her arrest."

The Times contacted Miller's attorney, Steve Bartlett, on Friday about his client. He didn't think there was anything amiss about her early release. He said Miller corresponded with him after she got out.

"She is dedicating her time and effort to her family right now," Bartlett said.

Further punishment?

When Miller does return to jail, she might be in for a longer stay. Handsel intends to challenge those 15 days that the jail took off Miller's 90-day sentence for good behavior.

"I'm not sure on a contempt sentence that you can receive gain time," Handsel said.

The Florida Bar took away Miller's law license and seized her files earlier this year after clients complained they paid her for work she didn't do or did poorly.

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office is also investigating the disappearance of more than $200,000 in client money from her firm. Miller denied she took any of that money.

Missing money is one of the reasons why Miller was found guilty of indirect criminal contempt of court in the first place. She ignored a judge's order to appear in court to explain why she failed to carry out another order, this one to return $28,000 to a client in a divorce case.

Miller and her attorney could not be reached for comment Monday. But the ex-client whose $28,000 is still missing, William Morales, had something to say.

"Oh, my God," he said. "I just hope they catch her and put her back in there.

"She still owes me."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

Disgraced lawyer mistakenly released from jail early 09/08/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 15, 2008 10:20am]
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