TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended a top prosecutor in Central Florida on Wednesday, accusing her of failing to impose mandatory sentences for gun and drug crimes and allowing juveniles to avoid incarceration.
In an announcement in Tallahassee, DeSantis said he was suspending Monique Worrell, the elected state attorney in Orange and Osceola counties. The decision marks the second time DeSantis has suspended a prosecutor from office.
“Prosecutors do have a certain amount of discretion about what cases to bring and which cases to not,” DeSantis said. “But what this state attorney has done is abuse that discretion and effectively nullified certain laws in the state of Florida that breaches her duties that she owes to the people of Florida under our state Constitution, and provides the basis for the suspension.”
Worrell, a Democrat who was first elected in 2020, is the second Black state attorney for the 9th Judicial Circuit.
(Worrell’s predecessor, Aramis Ayala, also had confrontations with a Republican governor — Rick Scott, who removed Ayala from death-eligible cases because she said she would not pursue capital punishment for homicides.)
Worrell has come under scrutiny by police union officials and others for how her office has handled criminal cases. But she defended her actions and argued that the criticism was an effort by DeSantis and other law enforcement officials to justify her suspension.
“This is a political hit job,” Worrell said Wednesday. “It is nothing less than that and it should be seen for exactly what it is.”
Worrell said DeSantis did not reach out to her directly about his concerns prior to her suspension.
DeSantis said he is suspending her because of how she has chosen to prosecute certain crimes. The governor pointed out that Worrell’s office did not act to charge a teenager who had been arrested for several gun crimes, and who later shot and killed his pregnant girlfriend in 2022.
DeSantis also highlighted the shooting of two Orlando police officers by a man on probation. When the Orlando area police union criticized Worrell for how she handled the case, she said she doesn’t determine who gets out of jail and said it was a “terrible thing that the (Fraternal Order of Police) would use this as an opportunity to exploit a political narrative about me being soft on crime,” according to the Orlando Sentinel.
In a statement outside the Orange County courthouse, Worrell on Wednesday called her suspension an “outrage.” She said she was duly elected and that “nothing done by a weak dictator can change that.”
Worrell said her removal was political and did not meet the high bar for removing elected officials. She said the move was DeSantis’ attempt to make news to help his “failing” political campaign.
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Worrell said her reelection campaign will continue, and that she is willing to fight her suspension in court.
She pointed to high rates of incarceration in the U.S. and Florida, saying that crime still happens despite that. She said she believes in using the “strong arm of the law when necessary” and “giving those individuals who need a second chance a second chance to get their lives on track.”
The governor’s office, in response to questions, sent a list of cases it said shows “egregious results of (Worrell’s) policies or practices in action.” It pointed to instances where she discouraged charging juvenile offenders as adults and avoided mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking.
Democrats from across the state were quick to defend Worrell.
“For the second time in as many years, the governor has seized power from the people, ousting their elected choice for State Attorney and imperiously imposing his own. This is not how democracy works in Florida. This is not how democracy works in the United States of America,” Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, said in a statement.
The decision to remove Worrell from office comes almost exactly a year after DeSantis suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, in part citing a pledge that Warren signed saying he would not prosecute cases involving abortion or transgender medical care.
Warren challenged that suspension. A federal judge said that while DeSantis did violate the state Constitution when he suspended Warren, the judge said he did not have the ability to reinstate Warren.
Warren quickly weighed in on Worrell’s suspension.
“Another illegal and unconstitutional attack on democracy by a small, scared man who is desperate to save his political career,” Warren said in a statement about DeSantis. “He wants to be a bully, but he’s actually a coward who has repeatedly violated the rule of law and the will of the voters to cover up his own weakness.”
Wednesday’s announcement comes as DeSantis, a presidential candidate, makes crime a key focus of his campaign.
In the executive order announcing Worrell’s suspension, DeSantis said that Worrell’s practice of discouraging mandatory minimum sentences is grounds for suspension. The order says that “of the 130 cases involving Possession of a Firearm by a Convicted Felon referred to the Ninth Circuit in 2021 and 2022 by the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office, only five had resulted in a minimum mandatory sentence.”
Mandatory minimum sentences are sentences created by legislatures that must be imposed in the case of a certain crime, no matter the circumstances of a case.
It is not clear from the governor’s executive order how similar statistics looked in Orange County, a county roughly three times larger than Osceola.
Attorney General Ashley Moody accompanied DeSantis during his Wednesday news conference and defended the state’s decision to suspend Worrell. She cited instances in which Worrell dismissed charges or did not file charges, saying the number of such instances was high compared with areas like Palm Beach County and Miami-Dade County, which also have Democratic prosecutors.
Moody said the numbers would counter any claim from Worrell that the decision to suspend her was “in some way political.”
“Exercising discretion does not mean abdicating responsibility,” Moody said.
DeSantis named Judge Andrew Bain of the 9th Judicial Circuit to serve as the new state attorney. He is a graduate of Blanche Ely High School in Pompano Beach, the University of Miami and Florida A&M Law School. Bain is also a member of the Federalist Society. Bain was appointed to the Orange County bench by DeSantis in 2020, and won election as a judge in 2022.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, Bain received low marks from the Central Florida Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, with respondents describing him as “state-leaning” or prosecution-biased.
Two Republican sheriffs, Polk County’s Grady Judd and Brevard County’s Wayne Ivey, spoke at the news conference.
Judd at one point held up a placard with Worrell photo-edited into a meme of a dog sitting in a burning room, saying “this is fine,” to laughs from the governor and attendees.
Orange County Sheriff John Mina, who has previously accused Worrell of not properly pursuing charges, was not present at the news conference, nor was the sheriff in Osceola County, the two counties in the 9th Circuit.
In an emailed statement, Mina said the office’s focus is protecting the community from violent criminals.
“We rely on our partnership with the State Attorney’s Office to ensure those offenders are held to account and kept off our streets,” Mina said in a statement. “We look forward to working with Judge Andrew Bain in his new role as State Attorney.”
In an emailed statement, Osceola County Sheriff Marcos Lopez said that safety is the priority and that “the criminal justice system only works when law enforcement investigates and arrests those who commit crime and the State Attorney’s Office prosecutes those offenders.”
Worrell said area law enforcement “played a big role” in giving the governor information he sought to remove her. She said law enforcement “galvanized” behind the governor because she has brought charges against law enforcement officers.
DeSantis’ decision to suspend Worrell comes as his presidential campaign has seen low poll numbers, high spending, wavering support from donors and major shakeups, including firing campaign staff and changing the campaign manager.
As DeSantis has run for president, he has tried to flank Trump to the right on the issue of crime, accusing Trump of being too soft by signing a major bipartisan prison reform bill, the First Step Act.
The last time DeSantis suspended a prosecutor, his communications staff privately celebrated that it brought more than $2 million in “totally free earned media” for the governor, according to documents from the Warren lawsuit.
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