Richard Fine, a 70-year-old Tarzana, California attorney, has been imprisoned, reportedly in solitary confinement, without trial since March 4, 2009.
His "crime"? Contempt of court, based on alleged "moral turpitude." He faces imprisonment indefinitely, unless he complies with the order of Judge David Yaffe, the Los Angeles County Superior Court judge responsible for his confinement.
Why the harsh treatment of Fine? Could it be in response to Fine's investigation of court cases that involved prosecution against Los Angeles County that were inexplicably dismissed? Over a period of time, Fine alleged that Los Angeles County was bribing judges, under the guise of generous "supplemental benefits" payments, in exchange for rulings in the county's favor. If this is true, a bigger story lies behind Fine's imprisonment.
Fine leveled several accusations against the judges, who subsequently accused him of moral turpitude for questioning their neutrality. They revoked his license to practice law and held a private hearing in which they decided to sanction him $47,000. Fine refused to pay or provide a list of his assets. He was jailed for civil contempt of court. There is no indication when, or whether, he will be released.
Fine's story has troubled legal scholars and many others who are deeply concerned about whether civil contempt rulings conflict with some of the most basic rights afforded Americans by the Constitution. Under the current system, a rapist, arsonist or drug dealer is often better represented, is given better due process under the law, and could perhaps be released from jail sooner than Fine.
The Constitution limits judicial power. However, Fine's case exemplifies a judge having unfettered power, and brings to light a significant flaw within the system - namely, there is no procedure for a contempt of court order. While procedural protections for criminal defendants exist, including sentencing guidelines and a "reasonable doubt" burden of proof, they don't exist for defendants like Fine. This disparity threatens a fundamental civil liberty protected by the Constitution. Herein lies Fine's plight: his basic civil liberties are jeopardized and he remains at the mercy of the very judge who sentenced him and who is the least likely person to be impartial.