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Adventures in the Law: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Days

Norm Tabler


  • Miami criminal defense lawyer, Jonathan Steven Schwartz, faced ethical charges for presenting doctored evidence in a deposition to undermine a witness's identification.
  • Schwartz replaced his client's face in a police photo lineup with another man identified by a different witness and altered his client's hairstyle in another photo.
  • The Florida Bar brought charges against Schwartz for ethical violations, arguing that the manipulated evidence was deceptive and violated rules prohibiting misconduct and dishonesty.
  • Although initially defended by a referee, the Florida Supreme Court disagreed, citing Schwartz's history of disciplinary offenses and imposing a three-year suspension, followed by a year of probation.
Adventures in the Law: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Days

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Miami criminal defense lawyer Jonathan Steven Schwartz was in a tight spot. His client Virgil Woodson had been identified by the robbery victim in police photo lineups. The deposition of that victim was looming. How, Jonathan wondered, could he shake her confidence in her identification of Virgil?

Then he had a brainstorm, an idea so perfect he wondered why no one had thought of it before! And, like so many truly great ideas, it was deceptively simple (as well as simply deceptive)!

Jonathan’s plan unfolded at the deposition. He presented two exhibits, each a black-and-white photocopy of the photo lineup the police had used when the victim identified Virgil. The photocopies included the circle the victim had drawn around Virgil’s face, as well as the signatures of the victim and the police officer.

It worked like a charm! The victim’s confidence in her identification was shaken. But how could that be? Why was the victim suddenly less confident in picking Virgil out of the photo lineups than she had been the first time around? After all, they were the same photos, weren’t they?

Well, not exactly. In one photo Jonathan had replaced Virgil’s face with that of another man˗˗ not just any man, but a man that another witness had identified as the robber. In the second photo, Virgil’s face remained, but thanks to Jonathan’s photo-shopping skills, Virgil sported a brand-new hairstyle. Unsurprisingly, Jonathan had not alerted the victim or the prosecution to the alterations.

When the Florida Bar got wind of Jonathan’s handiwork, it brought charges against him for ethical violations. Jonathan’s defense: Hey, I was entitled˗˗in fact required˗˗to provide zealous representation! Remarkably, the referee assigned hearing the case agreed with Jonathan that he had done nothing wrong.

The Florida Supreme Court begged to differ and disapproved the referee’s report. A new referee took a dimmer view of Jonathan’s handiwork, ruling that the photocopies were “deceptive on their face” [should it be “deceptive on Virgil’s face”?] and a violation of Florida Bar rules prohibiting “misconduct and minor misconduct” and “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”

The referee also found three aggravating factors: “prior disciplinary offenses,” “a pattern of misconduct,” and “substantial experience in the practice of law” (i.e., old enough to know better). As a sanction, the referee recommended a ninety-day suspension from the practice of law, followed by a year of probation.

The Florida Supreme Court was eminently pleased with the second referee’s findings of fact and law, but not at all pleased with what it regarded as an overly lenient sanction recommendation. In particular, the court felt that the referee had given insufficient weight to Jonathan’s lengthy (and checkered) disciplinary history.

That history included the following: In 2012 Jonathan had been suspended for ninety days for notarizing and filing an affidavit supposedly signed by his client but, in fact, signed for the client by Jonathan. In 1997 he was publicly reprimanded for breaching the requirement of fairness to opposing party and counsel. Two years earlier he had been admonished for minor misconduct prejudicial to the administration of justice. And over the years he had been admonished for misconduct in violating advertising rules.

The court concluded with the declaration that “this cumulative misconduct … of the most egregious type (dishonesty) [parenthetical in original] … surely necessitated an escalated sanction by the Court for that same repeated type of misconduct.”

The escalated sanction imposed by the court was a three-year suspension followed by a year of probation, to be completed before reinstatement.

Thus, Jonathan proved that doctored pictures are worth a thousand days … of suspension.

The case is Florida Bar v. Schwartz (Fla. Sup. Ct.).