JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — An unprecedented legal move by prosecutors and a Jacksonville judge led to a Jacksonville Sheriff’s Officer being removed from a list of troubled cops.
Earlier this month, Circuit Judge Bruce Anderson issued a new order in a four-year-old case, effectively unravelling his seemingly unambiguous 2018 opinion. In that case, Anderson found JSO Sgt. J.C. Nobles “not credible" and “evasive," saying he “had to change his story” under oath in order to support his claim of probable cause for a traffic stop. Because Nobles’ testimony could not be relied on, Anderson threw out the case.
The State Attorney’s Office -- and many others -- interpreted the judge’s order as an indictment of the officer’s honesty. Prosecutors placed Nobles on the so-called Brady list – an inventory of officers who’ve had problems (usually ethical or legal) that must, by law, be disclosed to defendants.
But in early April, in a first of its kind legal maneuver, the State Attorney’s Office filed a “motion for clarification” in the closed case – straight-up asking if the judge thought Nobles was a liar.
“For Brady purposes, there is a significant difference between the Court having found that Sgt. Nobles lied or was intentionally deceptive, as opposed to having made an honest mistake in his deposition,” the motion said. “…[T]he State of Florida seeks further clarification of this Court’s Order to determine whether the state is legally obligated to continue to disclose Sgt. Nobles name on the [Brady] list.”
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Jude Faccidomo, president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told First Coast News. “This case was dismissed by the State Attorney’s Office. It is in the ether. It does not exist.”
Because judges only have jurisdiction in cases pending before them, Faccidomo says asking the judge to revisit an old case is well outside the norm.
“The judge could no sooner rule on the State Attorney’s motion than he could try to re-incarcerate the defendant. So to ask him to make a declaratory ruling, essentially saying, ‘Yeah, but now Sgt. Nobles is credible again,’ is not proper. …It's a very bizarre and potentially inappropriate procedure.”
But five days after the motion was filed, Judge Anderson issued a new order, saying he never “believed nor found that Sgt. Nobles ‘lied’ … endeavored to intentionally mislead or deceive …or otherwise commit perjury.”
He added, “the Court never intended for its findings weighing the credibility of Sgt. Nobles’ testimony to have any import beyond” the 2018 case.
Then, having provided that clarification, Anderson denied the motion for clarification. He noted he “lack[ed] jurisdiction” to weigh in on the case since the motion was filed “nearly four years after the State of Florida dropped the charges.”
In short, Anderson formally declined to do what prosecutors asked, and then did it anyway. And as a result, on Monday, Nobles' name was taken off the Brady list.
The judge’s detailed “non-order” is just the latest oddity in an already unusual case. As First Coast News reported, Nobles was one of just two officers on the Brady list still working for JSO. All the others quit or were fired. And he was the only officer on the list for dishonesty (the other got an off-duty DUI).
Nobles has declined requests for comment, but according to the State Attorney’s motion, “Nobles’ position is that while he readily admits to providing testimony during his deposition that conflicted with the original arrest report, he adamantly maintains that the discrepancy in his testimony was a ‘mistake’ and not an intentional representation.”
Nobles’ allies, including former Fraternal Order of Police President Steve Zona, echo this, saying he simply got “mixed up,” when he described, and then detailed in a hand-drawn map, what direction he was travelling when he stopped a driver later charged with several offenses.
The police report – which Nobles didn’t write, despite initiating the stop – said he was travelling east when the driver blew thorough a stop sign and nearly crashed into him. At his March 2017 deposition, however, Nobles said he was travelling west. He even volunteered to sketch it out, using arrows and cardinal points to show his westward route.
Direction mattered. Nobles couldn’t have almost been T-boned at the stop sign or seen the seat belt violation he cited as probable cause for the traffic stop if he was travelling west. Based on this fact, the defense attorney filed a motion to suppress all evidence in the case.
At the suppression hearing, nearly a year later, Nobles said his deposition was 180 degrees wrong. He said he realized the moment he left his deposition that it was wrong, but didn’t tell anybody until that very day, Feb. 20, 2018. He told the judge he got his directions “crossed.”
“He had to change his story” Judge Anderson wrote in his 2018 order, because “it would not have been physically possible” for him to see what he claimed to have seen if he’d been travelling west.
“Sgt. Nobles completely and materially changed his sworn testimony about the events that led to the traffic stop,” Anderson wrote, adding that the officer was also “evasive, confrontational, argumentative and non-responsive during cross-examination.”
When Nobles was done testifying, the judge mused with the two lawyers about how he planned to approach his ruling. “It’s whether I believe Sergeant Nobles or not, and the credibility I’m going to give to his testimony,” he explained, according to court transcripts. “I have to decide in this situation who I’m going to believe.”
He did not believe Nobles, and after the case was dismissed, Sgt. Nobles was placed on the Brady list. He has always been unhappy about it.
In an interview last December, Zona said of Nobles, “He thinks -- and I agree -- that this was an improper ruling by Judge Bruce Anderson.” During the interview, Zona said he’d reached out to State Attorney Melissa Nelson about getting Nobles off the list and thought “she would be open to a process to vet how somebody ends up on that Brady list, and how they come off of that Brady list.”
The motion for clarification was just that – a potential Brady exit strategy.
“From the very beginning, once the court issued an order, Sgt. Nobles had objected to being placed on the Brady list," Chief Assistant State Attorney L.E. Hutton, who filed the motion, told First Coast News. "His position was that he'd made an honest mistake in his deposition, and that he attempted to correct that mistake.”
Upon learning he'd been taken off the list, Hutton said, “He felt vindicated."
Faccidomo doesn’t believe the new order is enough to erase Nobles’ name from the list.
“I'm afraid for Sgt. Nobles there's no avenue out of this,” he said. “Brady is very clear that anything that could potentially be beneficial [to a defendant], whether admissible in court or not, needs to be disclosed to defense counsel. So at this point, there is no undoing this. Even if they remove him, the action of removing him still needs to be disclosed.”
He added that given what prosecutors know of the original order, removing Nobles “would be wildly improper. That's where his name belongs, based on the judge’s original ruling.”
Hutton rejects that interpretation.
“I completely disagree with that. I mean, once the court entered the order for clarification, that dispelled the issue for why Sgt. Nobles was on the list in the first place. And so it was no longer Brady.”