Appointed Hillsborough state attorney touts her efforts in first year
TAMPA — Last August, Gov. Ron DeSantis held a news conference in Tampa and made a stunning announcement: He was removing Hillsborough County’s twice-elected state attorney, Andrew Warren, and replacing him with Susan “Suzy” Lopez, a county judge and former prosecutor in the office.
On Tuesday, nearly a year to the day DeSantis made the announcement, Lopez called her own news conference to tout what she described as accomplishments and progress made in the last 12 months. And like DeSantis a year ago, Lopez invited some well-known local leaders to back her up.
“I was asked to bring this office back to basics by making sure we prosecute based on the rule of law, not on political convenience,” Lopez said at the event held at the office’s downtown Tampa headquarters. “I realized as the first female state attorney in Hillsborough County, I had a chance to make a meaningful impact on my community.
“When you’re called to serve your own hometown,” she said, “you answer that call.”
But the process that led to that call has been mired in controversy from the start. DeSantis suspended Warren, a Democrat who in 2020 was elected to a second four-year term, on claims of “neglect of duty” and “incompetence.” DeSantis cited Warren’s decision to sign pledges with prosecutors around the nation against pursuing abortion and transgender cases. And the governor claimed he had policies of “presumptive nonenforcement” of minor offenses such as trespassing at a business and disorderly intoxication.
Warren has disputed these claims, called his ouster an illegal political stunt and is fighting in the courts to get his job back. He also has not ruled out running for the seat in 2024.
After Tuesday’s news conference, Warren released a one-sentence statement through a spokesperson.
“She’s an unelected political puppet who occupies that office illegally, and her pretending to uphold the law is a threat to public safety, freedom and democracy,” Warren said.
Lopez said Tuesday that one of her most important accomplishments is restoring the office’s relationships with law enforcement agencies. She said those connections were “strained and in some cases non-existent” prior to her arrival.
“My very first priority as state attorney was to show our law enforcement partners that we are serious about prosecuting crimes, and we are serious about supporting them in the heroic work that they do every single day,” she said.
She said her team has weekly meetings with representatives from the Tampa Police Department and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office to talk about crime trends, prolific offenders and other issues. The office has also launched a program called “Bridging the Badge” where prosecutors and law enforcement officers do ride-alongs and “shadowing” to better collaborate on cases.
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Lopez said her office has placed a renewed focus on crime victims, and that she has personally met with families of some three dozen homicide victims.
Lopez noted that the office has resolved two long-standing homicide cases: Michael Keetley, a Ruskin ice cream truck driver who was sentenced to life in prison for a double murder in 2010: and Steven Lorenzo, who killed two men in 2003 and has been sentenced to death. The office also secured four consecutive life sentences for Howell Donaldson III, who pleaded guilty to four random homicides in Seminole Heights.
Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister, a Republican, had seen eye to eye on some reform issues with Warren, such as creating diversion programs for low-level offenders. But Chronister grew dissatisfied with Warren’s approach and agreed to host DeSantis’ news conference last year and spoke then in support of Warren’s removal.
Chronister was the first to speak after Lopez on Tuesday, calling her “tireless, passionate and compassionate,” and said she has “restored Hillsborough County law enforcement’s faith in the criminal justice system.”
Chronister said the county jail’s average daily population is about 3,200 people, up from roughly 2,700 a year ago.
“A 500-person increase, and it’s because we’re holding individuals accountable for the crimes that they committed, while still fixing people, taking this holistic approach to accomplishing our goal of being there for victims, pursuing justice and continuing to keep Hillsborough County such a safe and wonderful place to live,” Chronister said.
Tampa police Major Ruth Cate stood behind Lopez but did not speak. But Cate’s former boss did.
Former police Chief Brian Dugan has been one of Warren’s most vocal critics and spoke in support of his ouster at DeSantis’ news conference. Dugan said Tuesday that cases are moving more swiftly through the system under Lopez.
“There’s been so many things that have been put to rest, we have instantaneously brought back credibility to this office,” Dugan said Tuesday. “You know, it makes me want to come back to work.”
Others who spoke in support of Lopez’s efforts were Mindy Murphy, president and CEO of the Spring of Tampa Bay; Clara Reynolds, president of the Crisis Center of Tampa; and Johnny Johnson, co-founder of the anti-gun violence group Rise up for Peace.
Asked to elaborate on the jail population increase, Lopez said more people are getting arrested and are being held longer.
“They’re not getting a one- or two-day time-served offer for smaller crimes such as trespassing or petty theft,” Lopez said. “That is what we are doing to clean up our streets. It’s holding people accountable, and so sometimes that means that they have to stay in jail for longer periods of time.”
Warren has disputed DeSantis’ claim that he had blanket policies against prosecuting certain violations — including specific non-violent misdemeanors — and said his prosecutors were able to apply discretion. He said his main focus was prosecuting violent offenders, and that his policies were working.
Warren also has said he was confident the community “doesn’t want to go backwards” and pointed to Lopez rolling back his policies on not prosecuting arrests that resulted from a police officer stopping a bicyclist — known locally as biking while Black. Lopez did not mention that move on Tuesday.
He first challenged DeSantis’ decision by suing him in federal court, arguing that DeSantis had violated his right to free speech. A federal judge agreed but ruled that he didn’t have the authority under the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to reinstate him.
Citing that ruling, Warren then asked the Florida Supreme Court to reinstate him. The court, whose seven members include five DeSantis appointees, elected in June not to take up the case after a majority of justices decided that Warren waited too long to ask the court to intervene.
The Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday asked Lopez what she would tell Hillsborough residents who don’t believe she is a legitimate office holder, and that DeSantis, in a politically-motivated move, usurped the will of the county’s voters by removing Warren.
“I’d tell them to come spend the day with me,” she responded. “I’m all over this very large county every single week… I’m in the courthouse every day. I’m boots on the ground. I’m with Mr. Johnson and other members of the community on the weekends. I am the state attorney.”
But a news release by the American Bar Association issued a day earlier showed how the issue is not yet settled.
The association announced Monday that Warren is one of two recipients of its Curtin-Maleng Minister of Justice Award, which according to the news release is given to prosecutors who exemplify the association’s principles, particularly that “the Duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict.”
The release said Warren, the “state attorney of Florida’s 13th Judicial Circuit,” has been “tough on violent criminals, fraudsters and repeat offenders” and has used “innovative reforms and created successful diversion programs to hold low-level offenders accountable while steering them away from the downward spiral of the system…”
The association’s release praised Warren for focusing on treatment, prevention and rehabilitation for offenders with substance abuse and mental illness to reduce recidivism “rather than further the revolving door of the criminal justice system,” and said he has “minimized poverty traps that criminalize people because they are poor.”
Warren is set to receive the award Friday during the association’s annual meeting in Denver.