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Strange saga: Jailed lawyer to represent himself in Pinellas civil case

PINELLAS PARK — Roberto O. Tulier is a man who professes a love for the law — he graduated from law school in Delaware, passed the Bar in New Jersey and has applied to become a lawyer in Florida.

But right now, the law doesn't seem to love Tulier.

Tulier, 32, was recently convicted of two felonies, aggravated assault and attempted unlawful sexual activity with a minor. He is being held at the Pinellas County Jail while waiting to learn his sentence.

Those felonies might doom Tulier's fledgling legal career. Even if someone passes the Florida Bar exam, he or she can be disqualified for "unlawful conduct."

But this week, Tulier will get a chance to handle one more case.

The jailed lawyer will be representing himself in an odd civil trial that will require a teenage victim to testify against him — for the third time.

And this trial doesn't have anything to do with Tulier's guilt or innocence. It's about who gets to keep his car.

• • •

Tulier's saga began shortly after noon one day in November 2011. He was driving his 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander sport utility vehicle through Pinellas Park.

Near the corner of 78th Avenue and 62nd Way, he approached a 16-year-old boy who was riding his bicycle toward school. He asked the teen to come over, and started talking to him out the car window.

According to the teenager's testimony later in court, Tulier asked the boy his name and age. And then a more unusual question: Would he like to make $400?

The teen then stated that Tulier requested oral sex.

At that point, the teen pulled out his cellphone and called his father, who urged him to get the man's license plate number.

The boy testified that when he went around to the back of Tulier's SUV, he heard him shift into reverse. "I look over and he starts coming back toward me," the teen said. He said his mind "was racing at a million miles" because he thought he was going to get hit by the SUV. To avoid it, he jumped off the bike and onto the sidewalk. Tulier ran over the bicycle.

Tulier was soon arrested.

A jury found Tulier guilty on Feb. 21.

If that had been the end of it, his case wouldn't be much different than dozens of others that routinely pass through the criminal justice system. But this wasn't Tulier's only trial.

• • •

Pinellas Park decided to confiscate Tulier's car. The law allows the government to force criminals to forfeit certain property when it is used to commit a felony. A common example: Cars used by drug dealers to transport narcotics are confiscated. But people can fight cases like this in a civil court case.

In Tulier's civil case, unlike his criminal one, he decided to represent himself. And in what other lawyers say was a highly unusual move, he demanded a jury trial. This trial actually occurred in October 2012, before the criminal trial was held last month.

Tulier seemed to be struggling at times during the civil trial. When the teenager identified Tulier as the man in the car who offered him $400, the judge asked if he had any objection.

"Yes, I object," Tulier said. "It's highly prejudicial."

"Well," the judge said, "any legal objection?"

"I'm not aware of any, your honor."

Later, when the teenager gave testimony relating to what Tulier was wearing, he said "it's ridiculous." The judge warned him: "No comments like that, sir."

But at another point, Pinellas Park City Attorney James Denhardt asked if Tulier had been deliberately aiming the SUV at the teenager, and Tulier objected on the grounds that it "calls for an opinion." The judge upheld Tulier's objection.

It's not exactly clear why the city of Pinellas Park decided to go to court to hang onto Tulier's car, which is now 10 years old.

Pinellas Park City Manager Mike Gustafson said the decision whether to seize property belonging to a criminal is an internal one made by the Police Department and city attorney.

Gustafson said he was told of the Tulier situation after Tulier decided to fight the forfeiture. The city manager said he believes the decision to go after the car was never a monetary matter, but a feeling that it was fitting for a serious crime.

He wasn't sure how much Pinellas Park had spent on the case, but said the city pays Denhardt $200 an hour, plus expenses.

In any case, the strange saga of Tulier had yet another twist. In the October civil trial over whether the car should be forfeited, the jury was unable to reach a decision. So a retrial has been set over the same car, which has a Kelley Blue Book resale value of about $5,000.

It begins Wednesday. Meanwhile, Tulier is scheduled to be sentenced in his criminal case on March 28.

Times staff writer Anne Lindberg contributed to this report.

Strange saga: Jailed lawyer to represent himself in Pinellas civil case 03/16/13 [Last modified: Saturday, March 16, 2013 10:37pm]
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