Story by Ron Bukley
Photos by Abner Pedraza (?)
After three and a half years on the job, Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg is proud of the successes he has achieved.
“When I ran for this office, I was concerned about the low conviction rates,” said Aronberg, who previously represented the western communities as a state senator. “This office had the lowest conviction rate in Florida among state attorney offices. Out of 20 offices, we were ranked 20th. Our conviction rate in county court was around 52 percent and, in felony court, it was in the 70s. Now, I’m pleased to say, our county court conviction rate is 85 percent, and for felonies, it’s 92 percent.”
That puts Palm Beach County eighth out of the 20 state attorney offices in overall conviction rates.
“At the same time, the direct-file numbers have gone down. That refers to the number of juvenile cases being tried as adults,” he said. “We continue to take violent crime very seriously, whether it’s committed by adults or juveniles, but when it’s a nonviolent juvenile who would be better served in the juvenile system, but is thrown into an adult court, we have done a better job of treating them with the right proportionality.”
Aronberg added that his staff has gotten quicker in their prosecutions as well, noting that when he took over, it took an average of 123 days for a case to go from filing to final deposition. “Today, it takes 88 days,” he said. “Justice delayed is justice denied, so we’ve done a better job of creating efficiency in the criminal court system.”
The office has reverted from the federal model put in place by former State Attorney Michael McAuliffe, to a horizontal system that had been in place under McAuliffe’s predecessor, longtime State Attorney Barry Krischer.
Aronberg brought Krischer in as an adviser, and also brought back several key leaders from the Krischer administration, such as Chief Assistant State Attorney Alan Johnson, a longtime Wellington resident, and Mike Edmondson, Krischer’s former executive assistant who now serves that role for Aronberg, and Craig Williams, who leads the felony division.
“We brought back some really strong prosecutors with experience, and I think one reason we had an increase in our conviction rates is that Al Johnson, along with [Assistant State Attorney] Sherri Collins, created an emphasis on teaching and continual training to make sure that the prosecutors are at the top of their game,” Aronberg said.
He credits interim State Attorney Peter Antonacci, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2012 to fill out final few months of McAuliffe’s term, with changing the way charges are filed to a committee system. Antonacci is now executive director of the South Florida Water Management District.
“When Pete came in, he immediately saw the problem with the filing process,” Aronberg said. “I continued what he started on that.”
Aronberg explained that Krischer had a horizontal intake system in which felony charges were decided by a committee of experienced prosecutors, rather than a vertical model used by the federal system where the same prosecutor takes a case through the entire process.
“The problem with that model is it really doesn’t work at a state level because at the federal level you have many fewer cases,” he said. “Here, we had 126,000 cases last year, so it’s impossible to have that system work.”
The office now has a committee of experienced prosecutors that decides how to charge defendants. “That’s a unique specialty, and you want to have the right people doing it, because the consequences of getting it wrong are enormous,” Aronberg said.
As a constitutionally elected officer, Aronberg is on the equal footing with the other countywide officers, including Sheriff Ric Bradshaw. A good working relationship with Bradshaw and his office is essential, but Aronberg noted that there are occasional differences of opinion.
“We are all human beings, and so you’re always going to have disagreements along the way, but we have an excellent professional relationship,” he said. “The community expects its law enforcement agencies to work together to keep our streets safe.”
As a directly elected representative, Aronberg answers only to the voters. “My only boss is the people of Palm Beach County,” he said.
Of specific interest to the western communities, Aronberg has put more of a focus on animal cruelty cases. It has been shown that animal cruelty often escalates to human cruelty, and that’s one reason Aronberg has strong feelings about the issue.
“We’ve made animal cruelty a priority in this office, and in fact, my first case that I tried myself as state attorney was a felony animal cruelty case,” he said. “We got a conviction in that case, and I want to send a message that cruelty to animals will not be tolerated in Palm Beach County.”
A recent animal slaughter case in Loxahatchee Groves has drawn one conviction, while some defendants agreed to a negotiated settlement. Some of the cases are still pending, which limits what Aronberg can say on the issue.
“One of the frustrating things… is that because we cannot discuss pending cases, [people] send me nasty e-mails saying, ‘Hey, how dare you drop this case.’ I can’t respond to it even if the allegation is completely untrue,” Aronberg said.
He has also continued his work from prior to his election as state attorney to shut down illegal pill mill operations. He worked on that issue with Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
“I was proud of our work to shut the pill mills, and it was a team effort,” he said. “We couldn’t do it alone, it had to be a bipartisan, total commitment from many different agencies and individuals to shut down the pill mills that contributed to seven deaths a day here in Florida.”
Aronberg’s current staff of 400-plus handle more than 126,000 cases annually, from driving with a suspended license (DUS), all the way to high-profile murder trials.
“By far, the most common charge we have in this office is DUS,” he said. “That also includes driving without a license, so that whole [area is] something we’re working with the public defender on, trying to create some kind of system where we can more efficiently dispense with these issues.”
Aronberg said he is trying to get funds to establish a DUS diversion program.
“We’re going to continue to find ways where we can more efficiently handle this enormous amount of cases that have come in,” he said. “In fact, a third of all our misdemeanors is DUS, which is around 33,000 cases a year.”
He also is an advocate for victims’ rights, which he believes is not addressed sufficiently, and why his office has shown solidarity with National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, observed every April.
“There is no one in the criminal justice system to speak up for them except for us,” Aronberg said. “Part of our job is to stand up for victims. Victims are not mentioned anywhere in the United States Constitution, although the U.S. Constitution protects the rights of defendants and suspects in the Fourth Amendment, the Fifth Amendment, the Sixth Amendment and the Eighth Amendment.”
However, victims are mentioned in the Florida Constitution, which gives them more rights here than in other states. “It’s incumbent upon us to speak up for victims when otherwise they may not have any voice in our criminal justice system,” Aronberg said.
Aronberg will celebrate his first anniversary with wife Lynn this month. They live with their basset hound Cookie, adopted four years ago from Big Dog Ranch Rescue.
“I was so grateful for being able to serve in the state senate for eight years. I loved the job,” Aronberg said. “This job is very different. It’s apples and oranges, because this job has a lot more responsibility. In my senate role, I was 1/40th of one half of one of three branches of government. Here I’m one of one, and my only boss is the people of Palm Beach County. Our decisions have great weight to them, because it’s the ultimate power of government to deprive someone of their freedom.”
He strives to use that power with humility. “When you get it wrong, you can destroy someone’s life in the process,” Aronberg said.
Currently, Aronberg does not face a challenger in his bid for re-election later this year, but there’s still some time before filing closes.
“I don’t want to be presumptuous to assume that I will be re-elected,” he said. “It’s up to the people to make that decision, but I love this job. It’s like an ongoing job interview. I have to keep proving myself every day.”