Law \ Legal

Can Andrew Warren Win His Job Back?

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August 4 started like any other Thursday for Andrew Warren, the twice-elected State Attorney for Florida’s Hillsborough County.

He arrived at his Tampa office and began to prepare for a press conference where he would announce that his Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) had identified two new suspects in a 39-year-old cold rape and murder case.

It was a significant break in the case, resulting from years of work that led to the 2020 exoneration of Robert DuBoise, imprisoned for a 1983 rape and murder. DuBoise’s exoneration prompted the reexamination of DNA evidence in that case. The investigation also identified two men who had committed that crime and another rape and murder in 1983, unsolved for nearly 40 years.

Despite these best-laid plans, the solving of two cold cases wouldn’t be the big news of the day.

Instead, just hours before the press conference, an armed deputy entered Warren’s office and told him that Gov. Ron DeSantis had suspended him from office.

And now, rather than focus on prosecuting violent criminals, Warren has to try to get his job back.

Last week, he sued DeSantis in federal court, arguing that the order suspending him was an unconstitutional abuse of authority and infringed on his First Amendment rights.

The timing of DeSantis’s order was surely no coincidence.

Warren’s scheduled announcement was a perfect illustration of how prosecutorial reforms can both serve public safety and protect the interests of justice.

The win-at-all-costs approach of his predecessors that Warren vowed to reform in back-to-back winning campaigns had not just led to an innocent man being wrongfully imprisoned for 37 years; it had allowed two perpetrators of serious violent crimes to evade justice.

Rather than acknowledging the success of Warren’s efforts in bringing closure to two grieving families, or using the case to launch efforts to prevent wrongful convictions statewide, DeSantis took steps to cancel the planned public announcement.

DeSantis justified his decision by claiming that Warren had “neglected his duty” as state attorney by joining dozens of other elected prosecutors in statements organized by my group, Fair and Just Prosecution.

In a statement released June 24, the signatories agreed not to use their limited resources to prosecute abortions in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade.

In a statement a year earlier, prosecutors from around the country—including Republicans as well as Democrats—also condemned the “criminalization” of gender-affirming healthcare for trans youth.

Both statements were well within the bounds of discretion exercised by elected prosecutors in Florida, not to mention the country. Moreover, those statements were in line with the laws as they stood — and still stand — in Florida, where the status of proposed abortion bans is uncertain and the legislature has not passed any law criminalizing gender-affirming care.

DeSantis’ action was an abuse of authority. It was based on a false premise that Warren neglected his duty.

Now the federal court will have the chance to determine its legality.

By making clear his priorities in ensuring the safety and well-being of his community, Warren was doing exactly what the voters of his community had elected him to do; he was fulfilling his sworn and ethical obligation to pursue justice.

The statements DeSantis cited in suspending Warren were signed by elected prosecutors in red and blue states, urban and rural areas, across every region of the country.

They articulated broad values on the propriety of criminalizing abortion and gender-affirming care, while also recognizing that there may well be extreme cases where it would be important to consider “prosecution of individuals who violate the autonomy of a pregnant person by carrying out a forced abortion, or who perform an abortion negligently or with the intent to cause harm to the pregnant person.”

With communities living in fear of efforts to erode personal rights, we need elected prosecutors to be open about how they plan to use their discretion and allocate inherently limited resources.

And it is the job of elected prosecutors to set office priorities and ensure that critical charging decisions are not driven by the whim or fortuity of the individual prosecutor. That is the essence of prosecutorial guidelines and policies that have been integral to the smooth functioning of prosecutor offices for decades.

The job of the prosecutor has never been to indiscriminately enforce every law on the books.

Doing so would be impossible.

Instead, every chief prosecutor makes decisions daily on which cases to charge and which to forego. Indeed, several states still criminalize adultery, but one would be hard pressed to find prosecutors allocating resources to those cases.

And until 2001, four states criminalized gay sex, but prosecutions were so rare that advocates had to spend years looking for a case they could use to challenge those laws in court.

Communities desperately need leaders to be smarter and more strategic about promoting public safety and directing limited resources towards addressing serious, violent crime. When prosecutors instead focus on politically fraught issues, it deepens mistrust in the legal system.

Some have suggested that Warren should have simply kept his views on these timely and important issues to himself and that could have avoided putting him in the Governor’s cross hairs.

Rather than attacking Warren for speaking out on matters of concern to his community, we should be applauding this transparency.

DeSantis’ actions suggest to elected leaders in Florida that they should keep communities in the dark about critical decisions they make – and that they act at their own peril if they publicly express views at odds with those of the Governor.

In electing Warren not once but twice, the people of Tampa have been clear they want justice reform, they want their state attorney to focus on the most serious crimes, and they want the criminal legal system to stay out of their personal choices.

By removing Warren from office, DeSantis is putting his views ahead of voters’ choice — the same Hillsborough County voters who preferred DeSantis’ opponent by nine points in the last election. When the governor’s anti-reform allies couldn’t win at the ballot box, he decided he could better determine what Hillsborough County needs than its own residents.

If DeSantis thinks he has a winning argument, he should make his case to voters when Warren is up for re-election. If he’s unable to win them over, perhaps he should consider whether he needs a better argument.

Editor’s Note: Warren has also made his case in recent Op Eds in the Miami Herald and Washington Post.

Miriam Krinsky is the Executive Director of Fair and Just Prosecution, and a former federal prosecutor.

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