BUSINESS LAW 101 / Official Misconduct

By Albert L. Kelley, Esq.

We want to believe our public officials will act appropriately.  Sometimes, however, they are tempted to stray from their duties.  Therefore, we have statutes that specifically require them to keep on the straight and narrow.  

First, no public officer can get an improper benefit from their job. They can’t obtain state or local assets at a discounted rate, nor receive any benefit greater than what they are entitled to receive.  These offenses are misdemeanors. Any government official who expends money for the government must keep a record book of all their expenses.  If an officer receives money from a lawful sale and fails to turn the money over to the rightful party, it is a third-degree felony and they will also be fined the full amount they failed to turn over.   But the problem is not just with money, but also records.

It sounds like common sense, but we have a law that specifies that no government official may falsify any records.  It is a misdemeanor for any government employee to steal, alter, or falsify any court record or recorded document.  If the record has to do with someone who is in state custody, and their act of stealing or altering the document could detrimentally affect the health, safety, or welfare of that person, the crime becomes a third-degree felony. If their action actually leads to bodily harm or death, the crime becomes a second-degree felony.  If the person affects a document from the Department of Children and Family Services, just the act is a third-degree felony, regardless of the outcome.

The law also affects the transfer of power.  If any person holding an elected or appointed position withholds records from their successor, after the end of their term, it will be a second-degree misdemeanor. This also apples to any Circuit Court Judge, Appellate Judge or Supreme Court Justice.  When their term ends, they must turn over all court records to the clerk of court or they are guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor.  In addition, if a person is elected or appointed and they start to act in an official capacity before they have taken office or been qualified, they have committed a second-degree misdemeanor.   

We also want to ensure our court system stays fair.  One of the cornerstones of the judicial system is to have a case heard by a fair and impartial jury.  If the clerk manipulates the people who may sit on a jury, they have committed a second-degree misdemeanor.  If the sheriff or any deputy refuses to issue a warrant for someone’s arrest or fails to take the person into custody so they escape, that is a first-degree misdemeanor.  If they refuse to take a prisoner into the jail, it is also a first-degree misdemeanor.  Once the person has been taken into custody and transferred to the jail, if an officer releases the prisoner on an insufficient bond or takes a bond from a bond agent who is not registered with the clerk of court, the officer commits a second-degree misdemeanor.  

As if all of the above was not enough, there is a catch-all.  If any public official who is required to perform any duty, fails to do that duty, it is a second-degree misdemeanor. 

While we wished we did not need these laws, it is comforting to know that if a public official strays from their obligations they can be held accountable. 

Al Kelley has worked as an attorney in Key West for the last 31 years. He is the author of five law books available through Absolutely Amazing E-Books and the host of “Basics Of The Law”, a weekly YouTube channel. He also previously taught business law, personnel law, and labor law at St. Leo University. This article is being offered as a public service and is not intended to provide specific legal advice. If you have any questions about legal issues, you should confer with a licensed Florida attorney. 

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