Last year, a domestic-violence victim failed to appear and testify at her alleged abuser’s trial.
A Florida judge’s response was to ignore the victim’s tearful pleas, hold her in contempt of court and send her to jail.
Earlier this week, Seminole County Judge Jerri Collins found herself on the opposite side of the bench as she received her own harsh scolding from Florida’s chief justice.
Collins stood through nearly six minutes of public reprimand after the Florida Supreme Court found that she violated the state’s code of judicial conduct.
Chief Justice Jorge Labarga said Collins “berated and belittled a victim of domestic violence” and used sarcasm and inflammatory language against the woman, who repeatedly pleaded with Collins to not send her to county jail because she had to take care of her then-1-year-old son.
“The victim apologized for failing to appear, citing anxiety, depression and a desire to move on from contact with her abuser as reasons why she did not appear for trial,” Labarga said. “Meanwhile, Judge Collins, you raised your voice, used sarcasm, spoke harshly and interrupted the victim.”
Labarga said Collins’s behavior “brought unnecessary criticism upon your court,” created the impression that she was biased toward prosecutors, and impaired the public’s perception of Florida judicial system’s fairness and impartiality.
“Judge Collins, this is indeed a sad day for you, a sad day for the people of Florida and a sad day for the judiciary upon which our people depend for justice,” Labarga said. “I cannot emphasize enough how intolerable your behavior was in this case.”
Collins’s aggressive attitude toward the victim drew public ire after a video of the July 30, 2015, hearing in her courtroom in Sanford, Fla., was broadcast by an Orlando television station, according to the Orlando Sentinel. A Facebook page and an online petition calling for her impeachment have since surfaced.
The man accused of abuse, Myles Brennan, who is also the father of the victim’s son, was supposed to go to trial last year. But the victim, the prosecution’s key witness, failed to appear. As a result, the state dismissed the charge of dangerous exhibition of a weapon, and Brennan pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of simple battery. He served 16 days in jail, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
Collins then ordered the woman to appear in court to explain why she shouldn’t be held in contempt.
“You think you’re going to have anxiety now?” Collins asked the woman. “You haven’t even seen anxiety.”
Collins explained that a jury of six people had been selected for the trial of Brennan, who has a history of domestic violence.
“You were required to be here by a court order. You disobeyed a court order knowing that this was not going to turn out well for the state,” Collins told the woman. “Is it true, what you told police, is it true? Those statements you told police on the day of this incident, was it true?”
In response, the woman mumbled a “Yes.”
“Then why wouldn’t you come to testify?” Collins asked.
The woman explained that she had asked for the case to be dropped and that she wanted to move on with her life. She also said that she was “just not in a good place right now.”
“I’m homeless now. I’m living at my parents’ house,” the woman said as she sobbed. “Everything has been shut off. I just sold everything I own.”
Collins, again, interrupted, and told the woman that her anxiety “did not do anything” for her. She found her in contempt of court and sentenced her to three days in county jail.
At that point, the woman’s sobs became louder, as officers walked toward her to take her in custody.
“Judge, I’ll do anything. Please, please!” the woman begged. “I have a 1-year-old son and I’m trying to take care of him by myself. I’m begging you, please, please!”
Unfazed, Collins told the woman that she should’ve showed up at the trial.
“I’ve already issued my order,” she said.
Earlier this year, Collins reached a plea deal with the state agency that polices judges and agreed to a public reprimand, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
In July, the state Supreme Court issued an order stating a public reprimand was not a sufficient punishment. The court ordered Collins to complete courses on anger management and domestic violence but found that she was within her legal authority to send the woman to jail for contempt of court.
Collins has expressed remorse and acknowledged that she should’ve been more patient and less aggressive with the victim, according to the order.
Collins was appointed to the bench in 2005 by then-Gov. Jeb Bush (R). She was reelected in 2014, winning the election primary with 51 percent of the vote. Her six-year term will end in 2021. According to the Seminole County judges website, she presided over misdemeanor cases, such as driving under the influence, driving on a suspended license and domestic violence.
She began her career at the Seminole County State Attorney’s Office in Sanford. She switched to private practice, and then moved on to prosecuting crimes against the elderly and disabled.
She attended the Walter F. George School of Law at Mercer University in Georgia, according to the Florida Bar’s website.