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Life as a Public Defender

BROWARD COUNTY, Fla. - As a new Public Defender -- I started in September 2014 -- I often find myself thinking, if I ever return to journalism I will never again read a police report as naively as I used to. After reading hundreds of police reports, or as we call them "probable cause affidavits," you notice each crime has "buzz words" that are used by law enforcement to make sure the arrest sticks. These words come from case law and law enforcement officers are taught to use them in their reports.

An arrest for driving under the influence usually has a driver who smells, not of alcohol but of an "alcoholic beverage." More often than not the driver is described as having "watery," "bloodshot" and/or "glassy" eyes along with "slurred speech." A quick check of the booking photograph will show the way a person's eyes looked the night of the arrest and they don't always appear in the way they are described. My favorite report was the one where the alcohol-smelling driver agreed to blow into the breathalyzer and his breath alcohol content was zero.

Another example is "resisting arrest without violence," which leads my list of stupid crimes. I still can't believe that a person charged with this crime can face a year in jail because they "refused to stand up" or they "tensed their arms" while being handcuffed.

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Broward County Judicial Complex in Fort Lauderdale, Florida Kim Segal

In too many of my cases a car is stopped for a traffic infraction and the officer smells the "odor of marijuana" coming from the car. Smelling marijuana is grounds for a law enforcement officer to search a vehicle during a routine traffic stop. In one report, two officers claimed they smelled marijuana through their air conditioning vent that was coming from the car they were driving behind.

Instead of reading a police report and immediately thinking "wow look what the arrestee did or said," I now have a better understanding of how these reports are intentionally written to make a person look guilty. If I was still in journalism I would read police reports with a much more critical eye. I would do a better job of questioning not only what is in the report but more importantly what was omitted. Many times a client will put their arrest into a context that never crossed my mind when I first read the police report.

I know this must sound like I am bashing police officers. I am not. I appreciate the difficult and dangerous job they have. Many people I love and respect work in law enforcement and thanks to them our communities are safer. Yet, just like journalism there are those in the profession that don't practice good ethics.

We must never forget the cornerstone of our criminal justice system: a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

The high profile trials of Manuel Noriega, Timothy McVeigh, OJ Simpson and George Zimmerman are among the important legal stories Kim Segal covered as a journalist for over two decades. While working as a producer for CNN, she began attending law school at night, and was admitted to the Florida Bar in 2005.

At 46, she left her television career for a position as a Public Defender in Broward County, Florida.

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