Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Florida Atheists Attorney Arrested by State

The persecution of EllenBeth Wachs, a retired attorney and the legal coordinator for Atheists of Florida, is a disgrace to all Floridians. Christians everywhere should be ashamed of how their fellow Christians in Florida are stomping on the United States Constitution and on a fellow American citizen's rights.

Atheists of Florida was doing what most atheist and secular organizations have to do these days: fighting the rising tide of government-sponsored religion. They've been playing a whack-a-mole game with the City of Lakeland's mandatory prayer that was held before each city council meeting. First Lakeland added a rabbi to the mix to prove they were inclusive, not just Christian. When Atheists of Florida got that thrown out, the city passed a new law giving Christians a few minutes before the "official" meeting to pray so that it looked like it wasn't an official part of the city council meeting. Everyone saw through that ruse too, and another lawsuit was filed.

So what did Lakeland do next? They arrested EllenBeth Wachs on felony charges of impersonating an attorney!

But that's not all.
On March 3, over a dozen sheriff’s deputies and other law enforcement officials, many garbed in SWAT style para-military gear, descended on her home in unmarked vehicles, arrested Ms. Wachs, and searched her home. Two bearded officials in SWAT gear held her two retail employees at gunpoint and for several hours unidentified agents proceeded to systematically tear apart her house, including searching her cars and employees’ cars and belongings. Agents seized Wachs’ personal and business computers, cell phone, documents and other items.
And guess what? It turns out that the arrest affidavit was signed by one of the defendants in Ms. Wells' prayer lawsuit. Big surprise.

It's a ridiculous charge. EllenBeth is a retired attorney (she practiced in Pennsylvania). The "evidence" of her crime is that she signed her name "Esq." and said things like, "We'll sue you." In meetings she claimed to be "representing" Atheists of Florida as a spokesperson, not an attorney. She didn't say "I'm their attorney." She never took a dime for her services. Everything she said was true and was something any non-attorney citizen might have said.

So if I put "Esq." after my name, I'm guilty of a felony? That seems to be the entire case that Florida has against Ms. Wachs. Oh, wait ... I forgot – she's an atheist. Throw her in jail!

Anyone who takes our freedom of speech and freedom of religion for granted needs to think again. We have to fight a constant battle against religious people who think this is their country. These people think that atheists, agnostics, and probably Jews and Muslims are second-class citizens in a Christian nation, tolerated but not really welcome. Their un-American beliefs are the very thing the Founding Fathers were afraid of when they wrote that Congress shall make no law respecting religion.

21 comments:

  1. While I sympathize with Ms. Wachs situation, and agree the charges are completely out of order (the title 'Esquire' holds no power in any court and is not something reserved for lawyers; anyone can put Esquire behind their name), unjust, and most certainly representative of a conflict of interests on the part of the person who signed the affidavit...

    I don't think it's right to walk around saying things like, "We'll sue you." Not only does it bind you legally to now sue the person you've made the statement to (else be responsible for any costs they incur preparing for the litigation which you threatened), it's just bad form.

    Conduct yourself professionally. You don't need to gloat and make threats. If you're going to sue someone, just sue them. Do it. Don't try to hang it over their head. If you act professionally you will incite others to act professionally when dealing with you. If you act in a childish way, you will provoke a childish response.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Can't some kind of case be built against the signer of the arrest affidavit for misconduct? I would think issuing arrest warrants when there is an obvious conflict of interest is an ethical, if not legal, no-no.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Michael,

    Stating that you are going to sue someone is not a legally binding statement and it does not compel an individual to pay for legal services rendered to another individual, especially if a lawsuit is never filed. Reimbursement for legal services can be requested by a plaintiff or a defendant, and these will often be taken under consideration when a judgement is made, but there's never a guarantee of reimbursement. No potential defendant is compelled to seek legal counsel before or even after a lawsuit is filed, any such action is voluntary and at the expense of the individual who has decided they need legal advice/assistance/action.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Michael – it's entirely appropriate to say "We'll sue you" if you mean it.

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is absolutely ridiculous. You have the support of /r/atheism. Keep fighting the good fight.
    http://www.reddit.com/r/atheism/comments/geqez/florida_atheists_attorney_arrested_by_state/

    ReplyDelete
  6. Look, I'm totally on board here in the fight against religion in government, and I'm an atheist, but your posting is incredibly hyperbolic.

    It is in fact illegal to use the title esquire in Florida, and it is in many states, especially if you do so and it's use "is reasonably likely to induce others to believe that the person or entity is authorized to engage in the practice of law in this state." - and she signed her name "Esq." on an official letter to the STATES ATTORNEY. She absolutely should have known better.

    http://floridabarhearing.com/unauthorizedpracticeoflaw.html

    "...It constitutes the unlicensed practice of law for a nonlawyer to hold himself out as an attorney either expressly or impliedly. This would include using the title Esquire (The Fla. Bar v. DeToma, 501 So. 2d. 599 (Fla. 1987)), using the initials J.D. if they are being used to solicit legal services (The Florida Bar v Catarcio, 709 So. 2d 96 (Fla 1998)), using “legal” in the name of your business (The Florida Bar v. Miravalle, 761 So. 2d 1049 (Fla. 2000)), using the title “attorney” or “lawyer” (The Florida Bar v Gordon, 661 So. 2d 295 (Fla. 1995)), and using any other title, such as notario publico, which holds the person out as being able to provide legal services..."

    Calling her persecuted and claiming the U.S. Constitution is being trampled is the kind of language I expect on Fox News and not a blog that wishes to advance reason and critical thinking!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Do they really need swat officers though? Come on, you'd think there would be protocols in place to determine when the police need to arm themselves for an arrest. When the person being arrested (even if in something as crazy as this) is clearly no threat, its too much, a waste of money, and an embarrassment.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Witch! Off with her head!

    ReplyDelete
  9. In response to Anyonymous, posting March 30, 2011, at 4:49 PM:


    Even if the Florida law you cite is correct and actionable, I would like to point out two other items to consider here:

    First, if the person who signed Wachs' arrest affidavit was named in a lawsuit with which she was connected, then that should send up a HUGE red flag as a conflict of interest at the very least. Depending on the applicable laws, this may very well not only make the arrest invalid, but even open up the signer to being disciplined in some fashion (or at least to being sued in civil court with a substantial chance of losing).

    Second, and more important (at least to me), is the blatant jackbooted thuggery brought to bear in the process of arresting her. That is calculated intimidation straight out of a totalitarian regime and outrageously out of line, considering that the only apparent "crime" was that of using a title inappropriately in correspondence --- nothing violent or threatening. SWAT teams and armed arrest squads are properly sent into drug-gang dens and other places of likely violent danger --- not the home of a retired attorney with no history of violence! Such a ham-handed action is like using a sledgehammer to swat a butterfly.

    Even if the felony charge is later dropped (which I think is quite likely, especially if a conflict-of-interest situation might make it moot or even cause it to backfire on the person who signed the arrest affidavit), there will remain the memory of this horrific incident: home invasion and ransacking, physical restraint and humiliation, armed intimidation of associates (and ransacking of their cars and persons as well), and having to go through who-knows-what bureaucratic maneuvers to get her confiscated property back, if indeed she ever manages to do so (and one wonders what condition those computers will be in even if she does).

    So, even if the writing in this article is a bit histrionic, I'd say that there is legitimate reason for it --- with, however, the distinct caveat that if she indeed broke a law, whether that law is ridiculous or not, this needs to be acknowledged. It still doesn't take away from the fact of brutal treatment being applied so disproportionately and injudiciously, at the behest of the Powers That Be.


    ~David D.G.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Anon – I don't think it's as clear as you say. If we read the article you provided, the title "Esq." is only considered evidence of wrongdoing if the title is specifically "being used to solicit legal services." Ms. Wachs was not soliciting legal services. Everyone at Atheists of Florida knew her status.

    Furthermore, the article you provided makes it clear that it's a very muddy area of law. The courts have to look at intent and all sorts of precedents. But all of the precedents come down to one thing: Was the person soliciting legal services or not?

    I predict Ms. Wachs won't even be prosecuted.

    Besides that, the use of armed police was100% inappropriate. And if Ms. Wachs hadn't been representing atheists, I'd wager she would never have been targeted.

    ReplyDelete
  11. What disappoints me is that behavior such as the type we see on a regular basis from Florida (as well as far too many other states) gets so easily dismissed with a casual "Of course it's batshit crazy. What did you expect? After all, it's Florida."

    What disturbs me to the core is that it feels like we keep moving closer to dismissing this sort of behavior with the phrase "Of course it's batshit crazy. What did you expect? After all, it's America."

    ReplyDelete
  12. Contrarian Anon, back again:

    Using the Title Esq. is not only wrong if using it to solicite legal services. That's not what was stated in my article:

    "...It constitutes the unlicensed practice of law for a nonlawyer to hold himself out as an attorney either expressly or impliedly. This would include using the title Esquire The Fla. Bar v. DeToma, 501 So. 2d. 599 (Fla. 1987))"

    The bit relating to the solicitation of legal services part is in reference to another case and the use of the initials J.D.

    But anyway, I TOTALLY agree that it's a muddy area though, and that is EXACTLY why I am taking issue with the tone of this post where you are rather quick to jump to the defense of her actions in a reverse ad hominem sort of way.

    In my reading of the situation, Wachs did something careless and stupid, and perhaps said some things she shouldn't have said in the heat of an argument, and it all came back to bite her in the ass. The States Attorney and Sheriff did not handle it well either. The whole thing will probably be dropped an forgotten before long.

    ReplyDelete
  13. It makes me sick to my stomach to see this kind of judicial abuse happen in a democratic country.

    ReplyDelete
  14. @Michael - "We'll sue you" is as much an encouragement to desist as it is a threat. When it comes to pursuing litigation, nothing is binding short of actually filing a claim.

    @Craig - Good citation, I was just going for my Model Rules, but you beat me to it. You're right, incidentally. There was no intent to deceive in this matter, and there was no harm caused. She could be sanctioned by the Bar, but that's a little silly if she's retired.

    ReplyDelete
  15. When the dust settles, she'll be rich. She'll sue due to official oppression and they will settle.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Sounds like Red china 30 years ago and present day Iran. This also sounds like a win-win lawsuit. But the way things are going in America
    today, any idiotic incident like this can be justified by those who abuse public office and the power entrusted to them.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Just to clear things up... here is the entire text from

    http://floridabarhearing.com/unauthorizedpracticeoflaw.html

    13. HOLDING OUT TO PERFORM LEGAL SERVICES
    It constitutes the unlicensed practice of law for a nonlawyer to hold himself out as an attorney either expressly or impliedly. This would include using the title Esquire (The Fla. Bar v. DeToma, 501 So. 2d. 599 (Fla. 1987)), using the initials J.D. if they are being used to solicit legal services (The Florida Bar v Catarcio, 709 So. 2d 96 (Fla 1998)), using “legal” in the name of your business (The Florida Bar v. Miravalle, 761 So. 2d 1049 (Fla. 2000)), using the title “attorney” or “lawyer” (The Florida Bar v Gordon, 661 So. 2d 295 (Fla. 1995)), and using any other title, such as notario publico, which holds the person out as being able to provide legal services (The Florida Bar v. Borges-Caignet, 321 So. 2d 550 (Fla. 1975)). It also constitutes the unlicensed practice of law for a corporation to advertise to provide legal services even if the services are being performed by a member of The Florida Bar. The Florida Bar v. Consolidated Business and Legal Forms, 386 So. 2d 797 (Fla. 1980). This is due to the fact that a corporation may not practice law.
    The Court has also held that it constitutes the unlicensed practice of law for a group of nonlawyers to hold themselves out as a panel of judges capable of granting divorces in Florida. The Florida Bar v. Gentz, 640 So. 2d 1105 (Fla. 1994).
    Rule 10-2.1(c) of the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar defines “nonlawyer” as including members of the bars of other states. Therefore, the general case law regarding holding out applies to out-of-state attorneys as well. However, if the attorney is part of a properly constituted interstate practice or is engaging in an authorized activity in Florida, the attorney’s title may appear on letterhead and business cards as long as necessary limiting language is also included. The Florida Bar v. Kaiser, 397 So. 2d 1132 (Fla. 1981), The Florida Bar v. Savitt, 363 So. 2d 559 (Fla. 1978).

    You can't just pick out the bits you like. It has to be read in context. This is ENTIRELY about offering legal services.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I should direct my accountant in the UK to refrain from marking my name on the posts "Esquire", as is always the fashion in the UK. Such a silly law.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Christian fundamentalists are dangerous!

    ReplyDelete
  20. religious people are extremely sick and always will be

    ReplyDelete

Dear readers -- I am no longer blogging and after leaving these blogs open for two years have finally stopped accepting comments due to spammers. Thanks for your interest. If you'd like to write to me, click on the "Contact" link at the top. Thanks! -- CJ.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.