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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Florida law allows a person who is under the age of 21 and commits certain crimes to be sentenced as a “youthful offender,” eligible for a reduced prison sentence and/or supervised release. To be eligible for youthful offender status, you must be convicted of a noncapital crime that doesn’t carry the possibility of a life sentence. If you are treated as a youthful offender, the maximum sentence that you can serve is six years in prison. Still, as a recent case out of the Fourth District Court of Appeal shows, a youthful offender who is given the opportunity to complete probation instead of prison time can still be thrown behind bars following a Florida burglary offense or another serious crime if he or she doesn’t live up to his or her end of the deal.

prison wireThe defendant was under 21 when he was arrested, charged, and later convicted of burglary of a dwelling. He was sentenced as a youthful offender and originally ordered to serve probation. The defendant violated the terms of that probation multiple times, however, including by being caught using drugs. In a hearing in which a judge considered revoking his probation, he allegedly told the judge that he had previously perjured himself on instruction from an attorney in order to get a better sentence.

The judge eventually sentenced the defendant to 15 years in prison, the maximum sentence for the crime. He said that the defendant “showed a flagrant disregard for the law” by violating the terms of probation and lying in court. “All I see is an individual who is willing to say and do and manipulate anything in order to get his own way,” the judge said. “And that once he does get his own way, he doesn’t follow through on his commitments.” As a result, the judge found that the defendant was a “violent felony offender of special concern posing a danger to the community.”

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Jury instructions are a critical part of any criminal case. They focus the attention of the jury on the factual determinations that they have to make in order to find someone guilty of a crime. A recent case out of Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal is a good example of just how big an impact bad instructions can have, as well as some of the ways courts try to remedy an instructions mistake.

GavelA defendant was charged with exploiting an elderly person or disabled adult in 2009 after he and his girlfriend allegedly took advantage of his 79-year-old aunt. The woman had an eighth grade education and had been living in her home for more than 40 years when the defendant and his girlfriend moved in. He convinced his aunt to take out a reverse mortgage on the property, according to the court. She obtained more than $150,000 as a result of the transaction, which the defendant then allegedly used to buy himself two luxury cars. Prosecutors presented evidence showing that the aunt suffered from dementia at the time and was unable to understand or consent to the reverse mortgage transaction.

At the time, state law made it a crime for a person in a position of confidence or trust to take advantage of an elderly or disabled person by knowingly deceiving or intimidating them. The law also made it a crime if the person simply knew or should have known that the victim lacked the capacity to consent. Although prosecutors proceeded on the second theory, the court didn’t tell the jury that prosecutors were required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knew or should have known that his aunt couldn’t consent. In fact, the judge didn’t mention the “knew or should have known” element at all. The defendant was eventually convicted.

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Florida law generally allows a person to use physical force to ward off an imminent threat of death or great bodily harm. Self-defense often comes up in domestic violence and other cases involving physical altercations. As the state’s Fourth District Court of Appeal recently explained, self-defense is a legal defense for a person charged with a crime. It’s not relevant as some sort of justification for the victim’s alleged use of force.

ScalesThe defendant was convicted of felony battery following an incident involving his ex-girlfriend and the mother of one of his children. At trial, the victim said she was still seeing the defendant on and off and had just learned days earlier that another woman whom the defendant was seeing was pregnant. The defendant asked the victim to come to his home so that he could explain the situation. Their daughter and the victim’s aunt, cousin, and grandmother were all in the house at the time the argument ensued.

The victim moved to leave the bedroom where she was arguing with the defendant when a physical altercation occurred, according to the court. The victim was holding the couple’s child and grabbed a cereal box from a dresser. The defendant grabbed her arm, according to the court, until the victim dropped the box. He said “do you see this [expletive]?” and then hit the victim in the back while she was carrying the child. The defendant allegedly backed the woman into a corner, pushed her, and said “now I have to [expletive] you up.” In response, the victim flung a bag containing a glass bottle at the defendant. That’s when the defendant punched the woman in the face repeatedly, according to the court. The victim lost two teeth, had her jaw broken, and suffered two black eyes.

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Plea deals can be a valuable tool for anyone charged with a crime in Florida. These arrangements allow a person to start to move on with his or her life after being charged with a Florida gun crime or another offense by working out a resolution that often includes a lesser punishment in exchange for pleading guilty. It is important, however, for anyone considering a plea deal to understand that the punishment can be enhanced if you don’t abide by the terms of the deal. Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal recently took on the case of a Florida man who was thrown behind bars after allegedly violating the terms of his house arrest.

barbed wireThe defendant entered into a plea deal with Florida prosecutors after he was charged with armed robbery, grand theft, and petit theft. He agreed to plead guilty to the grand theft charge, and the prosecutors agreed to drop the other charges. He was sentenced to two years of supervised house arrest, followed by three years of probation. As part of the house arrest, he was required to stay at his home and permitted to leave the property only for school, work, community service, and other limited purposes.

The defendant was later charged with violating the terms of his release by leaving the residence without an approved reason and failing to submit to electronic monitoring. Following a hearing, he was sentenced to three years in state prison. The judge said the defendant posed a threat to the community, based partly on some of the original allegations against the defendant in the robbery and theft case. He appealed the decision, arguing that the judge should not have taken into account any allegations related to the charges that were dropped. The Fifth District agreed in part.

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Search and seizure issues are often critical elements of Florida theft crime cases. The state’s First District Court of Appeal recently explained one way in which cops can use cell phone data and victim descriptions to track down criminal suspects. The court also said the police properly used the same information to establish the reasonable suspicion and probable cause necessary to justify pulling over a car, detaining its occupants, and searching its interior.

old phoneA defendant was charged with burglary, assault, and armed robbery following an incident in which he and two other people allegedly broke into a home and held the four people inside at gunpoint. The defendant claimed that he went to the house simply to reclaim some marijuana that he’d been shorted during a recent transaction. Prosecutors said the group took turns holding the people inside the home at gunpoint, while the others collected various valuables.

The police tracked down the defendant and the others by using the “find my phone” application on one of the iPhones stolen from the house. They put out a “be on the lookout” alert with the general location of the iPhone and a description of the three people who committed the crime. A cop patrolling the area pulled over Jackson’s car after seeing three people in it who matched the description. The officer removed all three people from the car and handcuffed them while she did a protective sweep of the car. She also checked the trunk, according to a police policy to look for people hiding in the trunk of any car stopped under suspicion of a felony. The officer found marijuana and a hand gun with an altered serial number.

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When a police officer flashes his lights, activates his siren, or otherwise directs a person to pull over, it’s a good idea to do so. As a recent case out of Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal shows, declining an officer’s direction to pull over is a felony, even if you don’t understand why the officer wants you to stop your car.

Car_NightA defendant was charged with fleeing a law enforcement officer at a high speed or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property, a second-degree felony, after a run in with the police in 2016. On the day in question, a Martin County police officer was driving in a marked police cruiser when he noticed a truck matching the description of a vehicle for which he was looking. He also noticed some sort of undisclosed “equipment infraction” on the truck. The officer said he turned on the car’s police lights – but did not use the siren – after the car cut from one lane into a turn lane. The defendant pulled the truck into a nearby bank parking lot. When the police cruiser followed, he accelerated, according to the officer.

That’s when the officer activated his sirens. In response, according to the officer, the defendant began weaving through traffic. Another officer who witnessed the incident said neither car reached speeds faster than 40 miles per hour. The speed limit for the area was 35 miles an hour. What the officer following the defendant didn’t know is that the defendant called 911 during this time. He said during the call that he was being followed by a police officer and wanted to pull over in a safe, well-lit area. The officer eventually ended the pursuit by nudging the defendant car in a way that forced it to lose control, spin around, and stop.

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The “double jeopardy” rule essentially provides that a person can’t be charged more than once for the same crime. It bars prosecutors from seeking to recharge a person for the same crime after being acquitted, convicted, or found not guilty. It also stops them from seeking double punishment for the same crime. The rule is an important legal protection for anyone charged with a crime in Florida. The state’s Second District Court of Appeal recently explained how the rule works in a drug case out of Polk County.drugs

A defendant was arrested and charged with three criminal offenses after he allegedly sold cocaine to an undercover police officer using a confidential informant. He had one stash of the drug that he removed from a nightstand to sell a portion to the informant, according to the court. Prosecutors charged him with delivery of cocaine (a second-degree felony), possession of cocaine with intent to sell or deliver (a second-degree felony), and possession of cocaine (a third-degree felony). He was convicted on all three charges.

The defendant later appealed the conviction, arguing that it violated the double jeopardy rule. Specifically, he claimed that he could not be charged with both cocaine possession with intent to sell and cocaine possession, generally stemming from the same incident. The Second Circuit agreed.

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Florida battery and other criminal cases often come largely down to one person’s version of the events against another person’s version. Witness and victim testimony is crucial in these cases. There are, however, a number of evidence rules that may limit the type of testimony that actually gets to a jury. The state’s Fourth District Court of Appeal recently explained that evidence about what happens after an alleged crime, for example, may not be relevant to the case. That’s unless the evidence is “inextricably intertwined” to the supposed crime itself.

Judge's GavelA defendant was charged with battery following an incident in which he allegedly tried to strangle his daughter. The father and daughter were arguing in their home, the court said, when the daughter retreated to her bedroom with her small child. The defendant followed and pushed his daughter onto the bed, according to the court. He then allegedly held his daughter by the throat for about 30 seconds, after another family member took the child. The daughter then left the home and called the police.

The daughter testified in a deposition that many of her personal belongings were smashed and scattered on the floor when she later returned to the room. Prosecutors introduced that testimony as evidence at trial. Although the defendant’s lawyer argued that the aftermath of the incident was not relevant to the question of whether the battery occurred, a trial judge allowed the deposition testimony to be introduced. The defendant was eventually convicted of battery by strangulation.

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Blood alcohol tests are often a key part of Florida DUI cases. Although police officers generally have to get a warrant or your consent to submit to such a test, there are a number of exceptions to that rule. The state’s Fourth District Court of Appeal recently explained one of those exceptions.

beer glassesA defendant was charged with DUI manslaughter with failure to render aid and vehicular homicide with failure to render aid, stemming from a late-night car accident near West Palm Beach. The other driver involved in the crash died after his vehicle ended up in a nearby canal. The defendant, who the court said left the scene of the crash on foot and called 911 nearly an hour after the crash, argued that a problem with the throttle on his car had caused the collision. He also asked a court to throw out the results of a blood alcohol test taken after the crash, which showed that he had a blood alcohol content of more than 0.17 percent. A toxicologist estimated based on that test – which happened hours after the accident – that his BAC was as high as 0.23 percent at the time of the collision. That’s nearly three times the legal limit.

A deputy picked the defendant up and took him to the crash scene after he called 911. He told the police officer that he’d stopped a stop sign and hit something – he wasn’t aware what – after proceeding into an intersection. He said he then went home to call the police. The officer said he smelled of alcohol, and his speech was slurred. Although he refused a blood alcohol test when he was taken to the hospital, his blood was drawn and tested anyway. A trial judge later rejected his request to exclude the blood test evidence. Although the cops didn’t have a warrant at the time, the judge said the test was justified by “exigent circumstances.”

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