While defending a client on a DUI charge, St. Petersburg attorney Bob Dillinger stumbled across what he thought was a startling revelation: Mothers Against Drunk Driving was being notified every time his client went to court.
This notification was not a simple call from an attorney or a victim. MADD received official notice from the Pinellas County clerk's office.
Then Dillinger got mad.
"I don't like it at all," he said. "MADD is not a party, not a victim. They are hostile to my client's interest. I don't see why the taxpayer should pay for this notice to go to some organization."
When other attorneys learned of the practice, they were equally disturbed.
"I think it's inappropriate that the clerk would single out a particular interest group," said Robert Paver, who represents many clients on charges of driving under the influence. "There are a number of taxpayers, including my clients, who would not be happy to pay for that."
Officials with the clerk's office say MADD is automatically notified of felony DUI cases, because the state attorney's office has plugged MADD into its computer.
Dillinger and Paver wonder why MADD gets such preferential treatment and who will be next.
The NRA is not notified in gun cases, newspapers are not notified in First Amendment cases and the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is not notified in animal-cruelty cases, Dillinger said.
"The clerk is notifiying someone harmful to my clients' interest," Dillinger said. "Where is that going to stop?"
Chief Assistant State Attorney Bernie McCabe said his office began sending MADD special notices in 1987, when MADD called the office every week and employees had to spend time tracking down the status of the case for MADD.
"They (MADD) are kind of aggressive in following their cases," McCabe said. "Ultimately, we decided it was more cost-effective simply to have a copy of the notice go out to them."
Besides, said McCabe, court records indicate that MADD has been notified only 70 or 80 times since 1987, at a cost of only $20 or so in postage.
Felony DUI charges are lodged against people with a history of drunken driving or in cases where someone gets killed in a crash. MADD attends court hearings in those cases "to support the victim," said Pat Reinhold, president of the Pinellas chapter.
"As a resident of our county, I have a right to know what's going on on our streets. I have a right to know what our judges are doing," Reinhold said. "I think he (Dillinger) wouldn't be complaining if he were the victim or a member of his family were victimized by a drunken driver."
However, the clerk's office uses a computer system to update all criminal and civil cases, listing hearing dates and filings by attorneys. Because the computers are set up for public access, anyone can go to a clerk's office and research cases on the computers. Newspapers and lawyers pay to have direct computer link-ups to their offices.
Paver suggested that if MADD wants to track cases, it should use the public access computer as everyone else does.
"I wonder if I can have the Florida Association of Criminal Trial Lawyers noticed in cases I think they'd be interested in," he said. "It's just not appropriate. MADD has access to public records the same as anyone else."
The policy prompted Dillinger to write a letter of complaint to Adminstrative Circuit Judge Richard A. Luce, who brought up the issue at a staff meeting Wednesday.
The state attorney's office and the clerk's office explained it to Luce and because the process saves the county money, he said, it doesn't seem to be too big of a problem.
However, he said, there could be trouble in the future.
"You and I both know more and more organizations are coming into existence, and this has the possibility of becoming a substantial nightmare," Luce said. "But I do not run the clerk's office and if the clerk feels comfortable doing that, so be it."