The truth about Monique Worrell
On November 3, 2020, Monique Worrell (D) was elected state's attorney in Florida's 9th Judicial District, which includes Orange and Osceola counties. Worrell won in resounding fashion, collecting 395,979 votes and defeating her opponent by a two-to-one margin. Her term does not end until July 7, 2025.
But now, Worrell is out of a job.
On Wednesday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) suspended Worrell and replaced her with a political ally, Andrew Bain. DeSantis previously appointed Bain as a state judge, and Bain is reportedly "a member of the far-right Federalist Society."
In his executive order suspending Worrell, DeSantis cited his authority to remove state's attorneys on account of "malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties, or commission of a felony." At times during a press conference announcing Worrell's ouster, DeSantis treated his removal of a duly elected official as a joke. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who shared the stage with DeSantis, held up a placard with a meme-inspired cartoon image of Worrell in a house on fire proclaiming, “This is fine.” DeSantis chuckled in the background.
In an effort to justify the suspension, DeSantis referred to "different instances of people who have committed criminal offenses, victimize people, because they were not held accountable in accordance with the laws of Florida when they had the opportunity to hold them accountable." DeSantis and others have clashed with Worrell on some high-profile cases. But their issues with Worrell's handling of these incidents do not withstand scrutiny.
In March, DeSantis took issue with Worrell's handling of the case of 19-year-old Keith Moses, who was accused of fatally shooting three people. According to DeSantis, Moses should not have been on the streets because he was arrested twenty times previously. "I can't believe they let this guy...you have to hold people accountable," DeSantis said. "I know the district attorney, state attorney, in Orlando thinks you don't prosecute people, and that's how you somehow have a better community, that does not work. You have these people with multiple arrests, multiple times where they can be held accountable, you keep cycling them out into the community, you are increasing the chances that something bad will happen."
All but one of Moses' prior arrests occurred before Worrell took office and while Moses was a juvenile. Only four of those arrests, which occurred when Moses was 14 and 15 years old, were felonies. In two cases, Moses "and other people broke into unoccupied vehicles and stole stuff." In a third case, Moses "was arrested as a passenger in a stolen vehicle." The final case was for robbery and battery, but Moses "was not the individual who held the firearm during the commission of the robbery." It's unclear how the cases were resolved because juvenile criminal records are not public record. But Worrell explained that Moses "was out on the streets because he did not commit an offense that would have required or even justified life imprisonment."
The one case that occurred while Moses was an adult and Worrell was in office involved a traffic stop. As the police approached the car, someone threw a firearm out of the window, which could have potentially constituted a serious crime. But the police failed to conduct DNA testing of the gun, which could have linked the gun to Moses. The Sheriff's office called the failure to conduct the DNA testing a "misstep."
As a result, Moses was only charged with possessing a small amount of marijuana. Worrell did not believe she could prove the marijuana possession case in court and declined to prosecute. But even if the case had been successfully prosecuted, it's unlikely that a conviction for marijuana possession, with no other charges, would have resulted in significant jail time.
DeSantis and his allies are also criticizing Worrell for her handling of Daton Viel, who is accused of shooting two police officers earlier this month. Viel was previously charged by Worrell's office for sexual battery but was free on $125,000 bond. At the press conference announcing Worrell's ouster, she was criticized for not keeping Viel in jail. But it is the judge, not the prosecutor, who decides the terms of a suspect's release.
Beyond these anecdotes, DeSantis appended several studies to his executive order alleging that Worrell prosecuted cases at a slightly lower rate than other Florida state's attorneys. For example, one study found that Worrell declined to prosecute 29% of criminal referrals involving firearms. The state's attorney for Florida's 20th district, Amira Fox, declined to prosecute 21% of such cases. Fox is not being suspended, however. She is a Republican and an ally of DeSantis.
The facts about crime under Worrell
DeSantis claims he’s suspending Worrell over “dereliction of duty” on crime. In his executive order, he accuses Worrell’s office of allowing “practices or policies that have systematically permitted violent offenders, drug traffickers, serious-juvenile offenders, and pedophiles to evade incarceration.” Publicly available data, however, challenge this narrative.
Data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement shows that between 2020 and 2021, the crime rate per 100,000 residents dropped by nearly 10% in Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit. This number is also 52% lower than twelve years ago. Murders, for example, dropped by roughly 13% between 2021 and 2020.
County-level data from Orange and Osceola counties – the two counties that make up the 9th Judicial Circuit – also reflect this trend. Orange County saw a drop of 9% in the overall crime rate per 100,000 between 2020 and 2021. Meanwhile, in Osceola County, the crime rate declined by 11% during that same time period.
At the moment, county crime data is not available for 2022 and 2023. But just this week, the police chief of Orlando, which is the largest city in Orange County, shared that so far in 2023 violent crime is down 10% compared to last year. Shootings are also down 30% from the year prior, Orlando Police Chief Eric Smith told Spectrum News 13.
Back in March, Smith also reported that there was an 8% decrease in violent crime between September 2022 and February 2023 compared to the same period a year prior. The number of shootings in the city also dropped by 12% during that same time frame.
Federal judge ruled DeSantis' actions violate Florida constitution
This is not the first time DeSantis has replaced an elected Democratic state's attorney with a Republican ally. In August 2022, DeSantis "removed Andrew H. Warren, the top prosecutor in Tampa, who had signed a statement along with 90 other elected prosecutors across the country vowing not to prosecute people who seek or provide abortions."
Warren sued, alleging that DeSantis' actions were illegal. The federal judge who presided over the case, Robert Hinkle, found:
[U]nder the Florida Constitution, a governor cannot properly suspend a state attorney just for implementing a reform-prosecutor agenda or based on general dissatisfaction with the state attorney’s performance—for being a reform prosecutor rather than a law-and-order prosecutor. It is not surprising that in this litigation, the Governor has not acknowledged that this was a factor in the suspension. But it plainly was.
Hinkle ruled that DeSantis' actions "violated the Florida Constitution and was based in part on a violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution." But since the action was based primarily on a violation of state law, Hinkle found that he could not reinstate Warren.
Warren then brought his case to state court, but the Florida Supreme Court declined to take up the case, ruling that Hinkle waited too long to file. Warren's federal case remains on appeal.
DeSantis learned that, even though replacing a prosecutor based on a political disagreement was illegal, he could get away with it. So he did it again.