A Florida appeals court recently asked the state’s Supreme Court to answer a question that could have big implications for anyone who argues self-defense in a Florida criminal case. The issue concerns who bears the burden of proof in self-defense cases.

Judge's GavelDefendant was charged with felony battery stemming from an incident with his girlfriend in a McDonald’s parking lot. The couple argued about who should drive to their next destination, according to the court. Defendant’s girlfriend said he punched her twice in the face after she refused to get in the car. Defendant, however, said he was the one who wouldn’t get in the vehicle. He said his girlfriend then threatened him with a gun. Defendant said he was shot in the arm in the ensuing scuffle.

At the time of the trial, Florida law put the burden on Defendant to prove self-defense. A trial judge said he didn’t meet that burden. Defendant later appealed the decision. While the appeal was pending, the state legislature updated the self-defense law. Under the amended version, the burden shifts to the prosecution to disprove self-defense once the person charged with the crime makes a facially sufficient self-defense claim. That threw the Second District for a loop.

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When a person commits a felony, he or she is on the hook not only for that crime but also for any other crime that happens during the commission of the felony. A recent case out of Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeals is a good example of how a simple burglary became a murder conviction for someone who never entered the home where the killing occurred.

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A defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for his role in a Fort Lauderdale home robbery in which the home owner died. A neighbor heard gun shots, saw a car drive off, and found the home owner dead inside the home. Another neighbor had a video surveillance system that taped a pair of men getting out of one car and into another. The tape also showed one of the men inside the car putting on gloves and picked up the sound of gun shots less than five minutes after the car left the surveillance area.

A police officer who observed the video later pulled over a car matching the one in the video and driven by the defendant, who matched the description of a man wearing Adidas shorts in the video. They later tracked down the second car and, after obtaining search warrants, found the victim’s blood in both cars. At trial, one of the men who said he was involved in the burglary said the defendant and another man watched for police, while two other men checked to see if anyone was in the home before breaking in. They rang the doorbell, and there was a struggle with the home owner, during which he was shot, according to the testimony.

The U.S. Constitution and Florida law protect people from unlawful searches and seizures by police officers. That includes stops and frisks on the street. Cops must have a reasonable suspicion to believe that criminal activity is afoot to stop someone in the first place and then have a separate reasonable suspicion to believe that you are armed and dangerous to frisk you for weapons, as Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal recently explained in a Florida gun crime case.

police lightA defendant was on probation when he was arrested and charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. He was also hit with a new charge for violating the terms of his probation. The charges stemmed from an incident in which a worker at a restaurant called local police to tell them that a customer appeared to have a gun in his waistband. The employee said she never actually saw the gun and told the cops she wasn’t sure what the object in the waistband was. She pointed out the defendant as the customer in question when police arrived on the scene.

An officer who approached the defendant later told a judge that he saw a “bulge” in his waistband that appeared to be a gun. The officer didn’t know that he was a convicted felon at the time and didn’t ask whether he had a permit for a weapon. The officer instead proceeded to pat the defendant down. He found a gun on him in the process. A trial judge rejected the defendant’s request that the evidence be excluded from the case against him, arguing that the officer didn’t have a reasonable suspicion to frisk him at the time the weapon was recovered. The trial judge denied that request, but the Fifth District sided with the defendant on appeal.

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There are several stages to a criminal prosecution and therefore several different opportunities to limit the impact of a conviction. Even if you are convicted of a crime, it is important to fight aggressively at the sentencing hearing to try to reduce jail times, fines, and other penalties. For instance, one question that may come up for a person convicted of multiple offenses is whether any jail time imposed for each offense should be done concurrently (at the same time) or consecutively (one after the other). Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal recently looked at that question in a Pinellas County gun crime case.

prison wireA defendant was charged with aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer with the use of a firearm, stemming from an incident in which Pinellas County police officers were attempting to arrest him on separate charges. The cops were after him for a number of robberies, one of which allegedly happened with the use of a stolen gun. He was eventually convicted of aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer and sentenced to 20 years in prison for that crime. The judge said the prison time was to be served consecutively, or after the defendant finished his time on the robbery charges.

The judge rejected the defendant’s argument that the sentences should be concurrent (at the same time) because the incident with the police was part of the same criminal sequence as the robberies, which happened a day earlier. The judge said he was required under the law to impose consecutive sentences.

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Search and seizure laws offer important protections to anyone suspected of or charged with a Florida drug crime or another crime. These laws set the ground rules for when police officers can stop a person on the street, pull over a car, or enter a home without a warrant. They also set strict limits on when the cops can search a person and his or her car and home. In a recent ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court bolstered the privacy expectations that are at the center of many of these protections. The justices limited police officers’ ability to search rental vehicles.

Supreme CourthouseThe defendant was driving a rental car when police officers stopped him outside Pittsburgh. The woman who had rented the vehicle gave the defendant the keys to the car, even though his name wasn’t on the rental agreement, and he wasn’t authorized to drive the vehicle. State troopers searched the car’s trunk, where they found 49 bricks of heroin and some body armor. They turned that evidence over to federal authorities, who charged the defendant with various drug crimes.

A federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit rejected the defendant’s argument that the evidence should be excluded at trial because it was obtained in an unlawful search. But the Supreme Court eventually sided with the defendant.

A Florida appeals court recently took up a unique case about a fairly common occurrence:  a call to the Department of Children and Families ending in an arrest.

grassA defendant was charged with battery on a law enforcement officer and resisting an officer with violence, stemming from an incident in his backyard in Santa Rosa County. His wife had called the Department of Children and Families earlier in the day, saying that she feared for the safety of herself and her five-year-old child. Although DCF officials would normally respond to the call, they requested police assistance because of DCF’s previous history with the defendant. DCF had been called to the house multiple times, according to the court, and he had threatened to harm them. During the latest call, the court said the defendant wife told DCF he said he’d dismember them if they entered his home.

Here’s how the court described what the cops and a DCF employee encountered when they went to the house: “The home was a fortress. [The defendant] had erected a number of barriers, including a sharp, padlocked, picket-style fence around the front yard. He had equipped the home with customized locking doors and opaque, inoperable windows.”

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The rule against double jeopardy generally bans judges from convicting a person multiple times for the same crime. A recent case out of Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeals provides some interesting insight into how the double jeopardy protection applies in Florida DUI and reckless driving cases. That includes cases in which the person charged with the crimes was involved in a car accident. As the court explains, a driver can be convicted of both DUI and reckless driving, but he or she can’t be convicted of multiple counts of DUI or reckless driving if the crash involves only one victim.

Car at NightA defendant was charged with several crimes related to his involvement in a car accident that left one person severely injured, according to the court. He pleaded guilty to five offenses, including DUI with serious bodily injury, DUI with property damage, reckless driving with serious bodily injury, and reckless driving with property damage. At a later sentencing hearing, the trial judge rejected his argument that he couldn’t be convicted separately on the various charges because of double jeopardy protections. The judge sentenced him to an unidentified period of time in jail, followed by probation.

On appeal, the Fourth District agreed with the defendant that the trial judge violated the double jeopardy rule. The court began by explaining that multiple DUI convictions can stem from the same accident when there are multiple victims injured in the crash. But the court added that “there can be but one conviction for each victim, regardless of whether that victim sustains property damage, serious bodily injury, or both.” That’s because both charges are essentially varying degrees of the same offense. In other words, the court said the defendant could not be charged with both DUI with serious bodily injury and DUI with property damage when the same person is the victim of both the injury and the property damage.

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Florida gun crime cases often involve charges of multiple criminal offenses. When a person is convicted of more than one offense, courts may be called on to decide if prison time should run concurrently (at the same time) or consecutively (one after the other). A recent case out of Florida’s First District Court of Appeal provides some insight on the limits on consecutive sentences for cases involving gun crimes.

parkingA defendant was charged with robbery with a firearm and attempted robbery with a firearm, stemming from an incident in the parking lot of a Mexican restaurant in Pensacola. He was carrying a firearm when he allegedly approached six people and demanded money from them. He then moved toward one of the people, pointed the gun inches from the man’s head, and again demanded money. He allegedly approached each person in the group in the same manner and struck one of them with the gun, but he did not fire the weapon. He was convicted and sentenced to consecutive 10-year sentences, for a total of 20 years behind bars.

The defendant later appealed the decision, arguing that the trial court erred by sentencing him to consecutive sentences for two separate offenses that were part of the same criminal episode. The First District agreed.

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Confidential informant evidence can make or break a criminal case in Florida. This evidence often includes secretly taped conversations between an informant and a person charged with a crime. Although there are a number of safeguards and defenses available to a person who is caught on tape talking about a potential crime, a recent case out of Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal shows that such evidence may very well be admissible in court.campers

A defendant was charged with a number of criminal offenses related to an armed burglary in a recreational vehicle park. Prosecutors alleged that the defendant and another man tried to rob a couple (Husband and Wife) for whom the defendant worked. The wife told the cops that two men – one of whom she recognized as the defendant – accosted her outside the couple’s RV. She said the other man hit her multiple times with a gun and demanded that she tell him where the couple kept their jewelry. The other man caught her and forced her to lie on the ground when the woman attempted to run away. Meanwhile, the defendant went back to the couple’s home, where a fight ensued with the husband. At some point, the husband chased the defendant back to the community entrance, where both of them fled the scene without any of the couple’s jewelry.

Police apprehended the defendant later the same day. He told the cops that the defendant and he had planned to go to the RV park to steal the victim’s Segway. He claimed he didn’t know that the other man had a gun until he took out the weapon and told the defendant they were going to take the jewelry. A police informant who first met the two men in jail approached the cops with information about the crime and later agreed to tape a conversation with the defendant. That conversation – which took place while both men were in a car, using drugs – was later played for the jury. In it, the defendant described participating in the burglary, according to the court. He was convicted, classified as a habitual offender, and sentenced to life in prison.

A conviction for a drug crime in Florida can come with significant penalties, including substantial time behind bars. In some cases, a judge has the right to makes those penalties worse based on the circumstances of the crime or the person’s criminal history. For example, state law provides for stiffer penalties for people who are designated as “habitual offenders” based on previous felony convictions. There are a number of defenses to this designation, however. That includes challenging the actual criminal charges against you and fighting the designation itself. As a recent case out of Florida’s Second District shows, certain crimes are exempt from the habitual offender tag.

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A defendant was sentenced to 15 years in prison after being convicted for charges of possession of cocaine, a third-degree felony, and sale of cocaine, a second-degree felony. He was designated a habitual offender for both offenses based on his prior criminal history. Habitual offender status applies to situations in which a person has been convicted of two or more separate felonies over a certain time period. The current felony must have been committed while the person was in jail on another felony conviction or within five years of his or her release from imprisonment.

Reversing the decision on appeal, the Second District said the judge made a mistake by treating the defendant as a habitual offender for the possession charge. Florida law exempts from the habitual offender scheme criminal charges involving the purchase or possession of drugs. The court cited its own 2006 decision in a case called Coleman v. State. In that case, a criminal defendant was also given habitual offender status for cocaine possession. The Second District overturned that decision.

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