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Outraged judge frees grandma jailed for 15 days

A 78-year-old Hallandale Beach grandmother ticketed for driving on a suspended driver's license spent 15 days in jail before authorities announced her license wasn't suspended and an outraged judge set her free.

County Court Judge Lee J. Seidman ordered Gabrielle Shaink Trudeau's release in December at her arraignment.

"She's handcuffed like Houdini, for the record. She's got chains around her waist, and she's got handcuffs in front around her hands as if she was some kind of a violent criminal," said Seidman, according to a transcript. "I want her released. I think she's suffered enough at our system's mistakes."

Safeguards built into Broward's judicial system are designed to prevent what happened to Shaink Trudeau. But the prolonged jailing of an elderly woman with no previous criminal record over a traffic ticket has left red-faced authorities admitting they botched her case.

"We fell down and we fell down badly," said Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, better known to South Florida television viewers as WSVN-Ch. 7's "Help me Howard."

Foul-ups and inaction are what kept the frail and passive senior behind bars for the first time in her life. Those missteps were largely, but not entirely, the result of Finkelstein's office -- the very office whose job it is to look out for indigents like Trudeau.

Two assistant public defenders who staff Broward's magistrate court neglected to represent Shaink Trudeau during her initial appearance in magistrate's court the morning after her Nov. 18 arrest, Finkelstein said. And contrary to office procedure, no public defender went to meet with Shaink Trudeau at the Broward County Jail.

"It was almost like she was invisible. I deeply apologize to this woman," said Finkelstein.

Shaink Trudeau was having a bad 2009 even before a police officer pulled her over in the 1000 block of West Hallandale Beach Boulevard on Sept. 7 for driving her 1995 green Mercury sedan too slowly.

Neighbors at the Lone Pine Mobile Country Club West said the former waitress lost about $20,000 -- nearly all her money -- to a Jamaican land sale scheme and that the trailer park was taking steps to evict her because she could no longer pay the rent. Shaink Trudeau confirmed that account in an interview late last week at the assisted living facility in Hollywood where she now resides.

Court records show the officer ticketed Shaink Trudeau not for driving too slowly, but for driving on a suspended or revoked driver's license, a criminal charge that carries up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. The ticket required her to appear at the South Satellite Courthouse on Oct. 8. When she did not show, a judge issued a bench warrant for her arrest and set a $2,000 bond.

Shaink Trudeau's license was revoked Aug. 27 by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles for failing to respond to earlier correspondence regarding certain undisclosed medical issues, said Assistant State Attorney Hillary Gulden. The first letter was sent in March, a few weeks after Shaink Trudeau was convicted in Miami-Dade County of improper backing following an accident there, Gulden said.

On Sept. 17, 10 days after her ticket in Hallandale, the state received a response and restored Shaink Trudeau's driving privileges pending further review, Gulden said.

Shaink Trudeau told a reporter she understood the notice she received from the state to mean she no longer had to appear in court.

But she misunderstood. And six weeks after the warrant was issued, three brawny Broward Sheriff's deputies were sent to her home and arrested Shaink Trudeau in her kitchen.

"They came on real strong, like I had killed somebody or something," she said. "There were neighbors all around. They put handcuffs on me. It was very embarrassing."

Deputies took Shaink Trudeau to the Broward County Jail where she was photographed, booked, fingerprinted and issued a standard khaki jumpsuit, jail records show.

At 8:49 the next morning, Nov. 19, Shaink Trudeau made her first appearance before a judge in magistrate's court.

A video of the proceedings shows Shaink Trudeau, arms tucked inside her jumpsuit, sitting in the front row and looking cold and gray and every bit her age. She was among a group of about two dozen inmates whose bonds had been previously set by another judge.

Judge John "Jay" Hurley, the court's full-time magistrate judge, typically zips through such cases without having defendants speak. He explained in an interview that an appeals court once reversed him for changing another judge's bond, so unless someone calls a special circumstance to his attention he moves quickly to dispose of them.

Hurley is not in the same room as the inmates, but both sides can see each other on closed-circuit television monitors. The video shows that as Hurley gets to her, Shaink Trudeau leans forward to hear.

"Gabrielle Trudeau. That bond is $2,000," says Hurley.

That's all he said before moving to the next case. Looking puzzled, Shaink Trudeau swivels to face the woman sitting next to her. Then she turns her palms up in a gesture that appears to say "What just happened?"

The video shows Hurley missed Shaink Trudeau's reaction. Indeed, he didn't see her at all as he read her name because he rarely looked up while addressing her group of defendants.

Nor did any court personnel call to the judge's attention the presence of an elderly wisp of a woman who needed special handling. Two experienced assistant public defenders were standing nearby but said nothing, according to Finkelstein.

"They let a judge give this person the bum's rush," said Finkelstein, who believes individual defendants have a right to stand at the podium while the judge reads the charge and states the bond.

Pretrial services division employees also shot up no flare to alert the judge.

Pretrial workers, employed by the Broward Sheriff's Office, screen new inmates with an eye toward keeping those who are a threat locked up and releasing those who are not before trial.

Just that morning they'd found Shaink Trudeau eligible for pretrial release based on a risk assessment score that was so low she was considered a good candidate for release on her own recognizance, according to the sheriff office's director of community control Kristina Gulick.

Hurley got that risk assessment before the hearing. But in an interview last week, he called it "irrelevant" to his decision making because the $2,000 bond was already in place.

"I could have taken other measures if it had been brought to my attention that there were special circumstances," he said. "Nobody said, look, she's old and maybe we need to do something special."

Guards took Shaink Trudeau back to jail for the next two weeks, including Thanksgiving.

Shaink Trudeau says she wasn't mistreated, but was confused and wanted out. She says she didn't post bond because someone she could not identify kept telling her it wasn't necessary.

Finally, at her arraignment on Dec. 2, prosecutor Gulden announced the state was dropping the charge because Shaink Trudeau's license was not suspended.

"On behalf of the system of so-called justice, I apologize," Seidman said.

"I accept that," replied Shaink Trudeau.

Gulick said it cost taxpayers $107 a day to keep Shaink Trudeau in jail. The final tab: $1,605.

Prosecutors now say they have established that Shaink Trudeau's license was in fact suspended on the day they dismissed the case. A further records check showed the state suspended it again on Nov. 26 -- while Shaink Trudeau was in jail -- for failing to obtain a medical reexamination.

Shaink Trudeau's license remains suspended today, and prosecutors have not decided whether to refile the charge, Gulden said.

Shaink Trudeau's odyssey through the belly of Broward's judicial system prompted soul-searching last week at the public defender's office. Finkelstein ordered retraining for several attorneys he declined to identify, but said there would be no discipline because there was no ill intent.

"She fell through the cracks. It makes you wonder how often this happens," he said.

Judge Hurley said that from now on he will ask court personnel to identify special circumstance cases that require his attention. He's also had talks with Finkelstein's office about more individualized treatment for all inmates in magistrate's court.

But Hurley says he wants to keep things in perspective.

"It's like when FedEx delivers a million packages a day and loses one or two. Do we really want to change the whole system because of it?" he said.