Articles Posted in Criminal Defense

manslaughterIf you are charged with a crime, the prosecution has the burden of proving that you committed all the elements of the crime in order to convict you of that crime. Some crimes involve an element that requires a specific mental state which depends on what a defendant was intending to do and what he or she knew. For example, the law treats someone differently if they accidentally kill someone versus if they intentionally kill someone, with the latter being punished more harshly. What a defendant does or does not know, and the intentions of the defendant, can be proven by circumstantial evidence. A skilled Florida murder defense attorney may use the defense that a defendant did not have the requisite mental state to commit the crime.

Mens Rea

Mens rea is a latin term which means “guilty mind.” Proving the mens rea, or mental state, of a defendant is a burden for the prosecution if a specific mental state is part of the crime. One of the mental states that may need to be proven is “recklessness.” Recklessness goes beyond general carelessness or negligence. (Negligence can land you in court, but only civil court, not criminal.) Recklessness goes beyond just negligence, and entails doing something that anyone should know is extremely dangerous. For example, leaving a loaded gun out somewhere that children have access to or another equally unreasonably dangerous scenario.

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.

Legal News 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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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.Legal News Gavel

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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Legal News GavelThe United States Constitution grants criminal defendants the right not to testify in their trial. See U.S. Const., Amend. V. From this right, the Florida Supreme Court has ruled that commenting in such a way that can be interpreted to cast light on the defendant’s failure to testify is an error and strongly discouraged. In a recent case, the Third District Court of Appeals heard a defendant’s appeal on this issue. The defendant was appealing from a Florida manslaughter conviction in which he was sentenced to 30 years in state prison, followed by 10 years’ probation.

The defendant argued on appeal that the State made an improper comment during its closing argument regarding the defendant’s decision not to testify at trial. Specifically, the prosecution said that he did not testify because he engaged in potentially incriminating conduct. However, the court took a more expansive view of the statements made, based on the trial transcript. The key distinction that the prosecution made was not to point out why the defendant was not testifying but instead to argue why the defendant was on trial.

The defendant’s counsel, during her closing argument, argued that the State was improperly relying upon innocent conduct to prove its case, such as the fact that he cut his dreadlocks. The defendant’s position at trial was that since this conduct was not illegal, it should not be used as evidence of guilt. The appeals court, therefore, read the prosecution’s closing argument as responding to the defense’s argument.

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Good Samaritan laws are controversial because there’s tremendous disagreement over whether a person should have a duty to render aid to another person or face criminal prosecution. This summer, a disturbing news story reported that a group of teenagers mocked a disabled man in Coco, Florida as he drowned in a retention pond. The teens also filmed the encounter and uploaded it to social media. The teens did not attempt to render aid or call for help. The story made national news because of the actions of the teenagers. Many called for the teens to face Florida criminal prosecution for their actions, or inaction, while the man drowned.

In response to this incident, the Florida legislature is considering a proposed law that requires a person at the scene of an emergency to render aid or call for assistance if confronted with an “endangered person.” The term “endangered person” means a person who is in imminent danger of, or who has suffered, grave physical harm. A person does not have a duty to an endangered person if it would put that person in danger or someone else is already rendering aid.

A violation of this proposed law would be a first-degree misdemeanor. However, as mentioned earlier, in response to the incident in Coco, Florida, if a person video-records the person in danger and uploads it to social media, that person is eligible for a third-degree felony. In addition, a person who renders aid under this proposed law would receive immunity from civil damages for any injuries that occur from rendering aid.

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Florida violent crimes are codified by statute. As a result, sometimes courts have to engage in the practice of statutory interpretation to determine which crime is available for prosecution. The answer is not always obvious. For instance, the Florida First District Court of Appeals recently analyzed whether a car could be considered a weapon under the felony reclassification statute in a Florida homicide case.

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The defendant spent an evening in January at a bar, drinking and watching basketball. At some point, the defendant and the victim got into an altercation at the bar, and the defendant was escorted out of the bar by its staff. The victim later left the bar with a friend, who testified that she saw the defendant’s car parked in a shopping center across the street from the victim’s apartment complex. The witness testified that the car flashed its light. The victim pulled into the parking lot, exited his car, and rushed toward the vehicle. The defendant advanced his vehicle and struck the victim, who died of head injuries on the following day. The defendant was apprehended two weeks later in Chicago. At trial, the jury found the defendant guilty of manslaughter with a weapon. On appeal, the defendant argued that an automobile was not a “weapon” within the statutory meaning of that word.

Florida Statutes Section 775.087(1) enhances the degree of a felony to a greater degree when the commission of the felony occurred while the defendant used a weapon. The statute does not provide a definition of “weapon.” Therefore, principles of statutory interpretation require the court to turn to the common or ordinary meaning of the word.

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Littering and dumping statutes seek to criminalize people leaving their trash in private or unauthorized places, like a public park or along the highway. The experience of an elderly Florida man shows that the Florida littering statute extends much further than those examples and can even apply to people who leave trash on their own property, if it becomes a public nuisance.

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The court’s opinion described the contents in the defendant’s backyard as “unwanted miscellany.” The trash attracted the attention of a city code inspector, who issued a citation to the defendant and told him to bring the property into compliance with the code. This did not occur, and the city deemed the defendant’s yard “a serious public safety and welfare threat.” Eventually, the code enforcement office initiated an abatement of the property to clear the defendant’s yard. The defendant was then charged with felony littering under Florida criminal law. He was sentenced to five years’ probation, as well as restitution and a fine. The defendant appealed the court’s decision.

Florida Statutes Section 403.413 criminalizes dumping litter in private property. Although an owner is free to dump litter in his or her own property, if the litter becomes a public nuisance, it is in violation of the law. Moreover, subsection (6)(c) provides that any person who dumps litter that weighs in total over 500 pounds or that is over 100 cubic feet in size is guilty of a third-degree felony.

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As more commerce is conducted electronically, many States have passed laws specifically targeting credit card fraud. Florida is no exception. Local authorities are aggressively pursuing a variety of Florida credit fraud schemes, including mortgage fraud, health care fraud, and identity theft.

Before the beginning of the college football season, several star University of Florida players were suspended as the university investigated alleged misconduct. The status of the investigation changed this week after news outlets reported that nine members of the Gators team face at least 62 potential felony charges of credit card fraud.

The sworn complaint alleged that the players used borrowed or stolen credit cards in order to purchase electronics, some which were later resold on a secondary market. The alleged scheme involved the players adding money to their bookstore debit accounts and then using the extra money to make additional purchases. Moreover, the sworn complaint alleged that a stolen credit card was used to pay for rent in a Gainesville apartment complex.

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As Hurricane Irma approached Florida, many people had to make tough decisions about what to bring and what to leave behind. Millions of the State’s residents evacuated to escape harm’s way. News outlets in the aftermath of the hurricane reported that dozens of pet owners left behind their pets, some of which were left outside chained to trees as the hurricane approached the coast. Florida law criminalizes various types of animal cruelty, most of which are punishable as misdemeanors. However, some prosecutors have stated to news media outlets that they intend to prosecute people who abandoned their pets under Florida animal cruelty felony statutes. These laws include a specific intent component that raises the evidentiary standard for prosecutors bringing the cases and highlights the importance of an experienced Florida criminal defense attorney.

Florida Statute Section 828.13 criminalizes the illegal confinement or abandonment of animals. This first-degree misdemeanor is punishable by a fine and jail time. The types of abandonment prohibited by the statute include the confinement of an animal without food and water, keeping an animal in an enclosure without exercise and change of air, and abandonment of an animal to die that is sick or infirm. Other animal cruelty laws raise the crime’s punishment to a third-degree felony. For instance, Florida Statute Section 828.12(2) provides that a person who intentionally kills or excessively inflicts unnecessary pain or suffering has committed aggravated animal cruelty, a felony of the third degree. Also, Florida Statute Section 828.122 provides that animal fighting is punishable as a felony of the third degree.

The reports of homeowners abandoning pets by leaving them tied to a tree suggest the possible availability of punishment for a first-degree misdemeanor. If an owner abandoned a pet without food or water before evacuating for the hurricane, this could potentially fall under the misdemeanor statute. However, felony charges are often more difficult to prove or require more severe conduct in order to prosecute. This is true for the animal cruelty felony crime, which requires an intentional act to inflict unnecessary pain or suffering on an animal. Therefore, aggravated animal cruelty appears reserved for the most egregious conduct related to harming an animal.