Gun offenses are serious crimes in Florida, under both state and federal laws. In a recent case out of Pinellas County, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit explained that the feds have the right to impose strict penalties for gun crimes. The court also made clear that those penalties may be even more harsh when the person charged has a prior criminal record.

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A defendant was convicted of two counts of robbery in Pinellas County in 2008. Seven years later, he was charged with possessing a firearm. Federal law bans convicted felons from owning or possessing guns. After he pleaded guilty to the crime, prosecutors asked a federal judge to give him a longer stint behind bars because of his previous robbery convictions, which the prosecutors characterized as crimes of violence. Federal sentencing guidelines provide for an enhanced sentence when a person has previously been convicted of such a crime.

The court took the prosecutors’ advice, but it also said it would account for the fact that the defendant admitted his guilt. The court sentenced him to 30 months in prison and another three years of supervised release, near the high end of the recommended penalty. He later appealed the decision, arguing that the court wrongly determined that his previous convictions were for crimes of violence.

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Florida prosecutors have the burden in many white collar and other criminal cases to prove that the person charged with crime actually intended to commit it. Getting inside a person’s head at the time of the offense is easier said than done, so prosecutors often rely on evidence about the person’s words and actions to prove that he or she had criminal intent. A recent real estate fraud case out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is a good example of how that works.

ScalesThe defendant was charged with various fraud crimes related to his operation of PIM, a Florida company that offered clients the opportunity to invest in property on the Bahamas island of Rum Cay. The company solicited clients to buy the property directly or loan money to the PIM with Rum Cay land as a security. They targeted people who had recently lost money in stock and precious metals markets by offering them a credit for those stocks and precious metals that was more than the market value, according to the court. They also managed to get pro football legend Joe Montana to sign on as a pitch man in return for a parcel of Rum Cay property.

“PIM, in fact, was a scam,” the Eleventh Circuit said. The Rum Cay land in which it said it was selling interests was actually owned by a Bahamian company “owned by a convicted felon and embroiled in litigation over title to the land.” PIM didn’t tell its investors about that piece of the puzzle, however, until after they transferred money. Investors never received title to the property, the court said, but the defendant gave exorbitant commissions to PIM salespersons and spent millions of dollars for his own benefits. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to more than 12 years in prison. He was also ordered to pay more than $8 million in restitution.

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Police often use confidential informants to bolster criminal investigations, including in drug cases. These sources may have criminal records themselves, and cops’ reliance on informants raises a variety of legal issues. That’s especially true in situations in which the person charged with a crime says the police got the wrong man, as Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals recently pointed out.

white pillsA defendant was arrested and charged with numerous drug offenses after he allegedly sold hydrocodone and cocaine to an undercover St. Petersburg police officer. A confidential police informant set up the first transaction by contacting his brother. The CI and undercover officers met the brother and a person he introduced as “Dino” at a convenience store. Dino sold the officer Fioricet pills, which he said were hydrocodone. Dino contacted the officer to sell him actual hydrocodone pills two weeks later. It was another five months before the third and final transaction. The officer contacted Dino, who said he didn’t have hydrocodone but sold the officer an eight ball of cocaine instead.

The officer had some trouble finding out the defendant’s true identity. He took the plate number from the brother’s car and found police records from a traffic stop in which the defendant was in the car. He then found a photo of the defendant and identified him as “Dino.” Although the defendant claimed that the officer had found the wrong guy, he was convicted following a trial.

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Many criminal drug cases come down to search and seizure issues concerning how law enforcement gains evidence of the alleged crime. Generally, police officers need a warrant from a judge in order to search your home or other property. There are several exceptions to this rule, but even cases in which a search warrant has been issued can raise tricky legal issues. A recent case out of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida is a good example of how cops can establish probable cause to get a warrant in drug cases.

marijuana plantsTwo defendants were charged with conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance, stemming from their alleged roles in an Orlando marijuana trafficking operation. Much of the evidence against the pair came from a series of property searches and surveillance operations conducted after Drug Enforcement Agency investigators obtained warrants from a federal judge. The defendants at trial later moved to block prosecutors from entering into the record any evidence obtained during the searches and surveillance operations. They argued that the investigators misled the judge by providing incomplete information on their warrant requests and that those requests didn’t establish the probable cause needed to justify the warrants.

The first warrant, which the DEA agents used to search a self-storage facility in Orlando, was based on information gained from a confidential source and from two undercover officers. The confidential source told agents that a South African drug dealer had been selling 200 pounds of marijuana a month to Dominican buyers in Orlando. He said the dealer had asked the source to contact the Dominicans about some $250,000 still owed for the drugs and to try to re-establish the relationship. The confidential source and two undercover agents met with Cassara and Almeida four times. They agreed to facilitate a marijuana sale to the Dominicans, according to the court. One defendant said he would load 25 pounds of marijuana in a truck and leave it for the Dominicans to pick up in exchange for leaving cash in the truck.

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A high-profile Pinellas County murder case recently got new life from the Florida Supreme Court. The decision is a good example of how seriously courts take murder charges, and also of the strict legal requirements that have to be met before a person can be sentenced to death.

business-law-1238207-300x200-300x200The defendant was charged in 2006 with the murder of two victims. He had worked as the couple’s personal fitness trainer and allegedly murdered the couple during a robbery in which he stole a safe containing $88,000 in cash. The couple was stabbed to death, and their home was set on fire after the robbery. A jury trial took place in 2010, at the close of which the jury convicted the defendant on two counts of first-degree murder. During a separate penalty phase of the trial, the 12-member jury voted 7-5 in favor of recommending the death sentence. Although the defendant’s lawyers presented evidence showing that he suffered from extreme mental and emotional impairments, the judge declined to mitigate his sentence. Instead, the judge sentenced the defendant to death.

The defendant later appealed the sentence to the Florida Supreme Court, arguing that putting him to death under the circumstances was unconstitutional. The state’s highest court agreed, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida. In that case, the justices said that a jury, rather than a judge, has to find every fact necessary to impose a death sentence. A mere recommendation is not enough. When the Hurst case was sent from the U.S. Supreme Court to the Florida Supreme Court, the state justices added that the jury must vote unanimously in order to impose a death sentence.

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Plea deals are an important tool for anyone facing criminal charges in Florida. These arrangements often allow you to avoid long, drawn-out court battles. They also give you the chance in many cases to lessen the impact of a conviction on you and your family. When considering these deals, however, judges still have some leeway to decide how the person involved in the deal will be punished for the crime. As a recent case out of Central Florida shows, one of the factors that federal judges consider in Florida white collar crime cases is the nature of the person’s role in the crime.

judge's gavelThe defendant was arrested in 2013 and charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government, stemming from his alleged involvement in a tax refund and Social Security check theft scheme. Workers at two Tampa post offices gave the checks to a man who then turned the checks over to the defendant to forge signatures on them, according to the court. The other man paced the checks in individual envelopes, the court said, and put them in the mailbox outside the defendant’s home in Dade City. The defendant deposited some $260,000 worth of stolen checks into three bank accounts. The theft victims ranged in age and location, but several lived in Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties.

The defendant eventually reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors, in which he admitted to being involved in the conspiracy and was sentenced to 24 to 30 months in jail. The judge, as part of the sentencing, took into account that the defendant had accepted responsibility for the conspiracy and did not have a previous criminal record. He later appealed the conviction, however, arguing that the judge also should have further reduced his sentence because he had a “minor role” in the conspiracy.

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Florida police and courts take driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol very seriously. A DUI conviction can come with stiff penalties, including jail time, heavy fines, and the loss of driving privileges. The consequences of a conviction are particularly severe in cases involving repeat offenders and those in which the person charged caused an accident while they were intoxicated behind the wheel. Just take the recent case of a Clearwater man whom a federal court recently decided will be staying in jail for decades.

ball and chainThe case centered on an accident that happened in April 2010. Clearwater police were after the defendant on an unrelated misdemeanor warrant and received a tip that he was hanging out at a local bar. An officer observed the defendant’s truck in the bar parking lot and pulled the truck over shortly after he saw the defendant leave in it. When the officer approached the vehicle, however, the defendant sped away. A chase ensued, during which the defendant ran a red light and collided with a taxi cab. The cab driver died in the accident.

The defendant, whose driver’s license had already been revoked, was taken to a hospital, where a blood test showed that he had a blood alcohol content of about 0.17 percent, more than twice the legal limit. He was convicted of DUI manslaughter and other offenses and sentenced to 20 years in jail. He later asked the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida to scrap the conviction. He argued that prospective jurors in the case had inappropriate conversations with a representative of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the cab driver’s family, in which they discussed some of his previous convictions for DUI.

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Car at NightAs with many crimes, Florida drug possession can be prosecuted in a variety of different ways. It’s clear that if a person is arrested with contraband on his or her person, that might be used as evidence to prove the crime. However, what happens when the drug is present in an area where you are present, but it’s not actually on your person? It’s still possible for the State to seek a conviction under those circumstances based on what is known as “constructive possession.” A November 15, 2017 case, decided by the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeals, reversed the acquittal of the criminal defendant after the appeals court ruled that there was enough evidence to uphold the jury’s finding of possession of cocaine.

The defendant’s car was stopped after he was spotted parked in front of a house where a man walked up to the passenger side of the car, stayed for a few minutes, and then left. The police searched the defendant’s car and found a small rock of crack cocaine on the sliding track under the driver’s seat. There was no evidence at trial that the defendant owned the car or that anyone else drove or rode in the car regularly.

The jury returned a verdict of guilty; however, the judge overruled the jury and acquitted the defendant because of a lack of evidence. The State appealed the judge’s decision.

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Cruise ShipThe cruise ship industry is a major source of revenue in Florida, and in fact, Florida law seeks to protect cruise-goers by extending subject matter jurisdiction to criminal acts that occur on cruise ships that leave Florida ports. However, the Third District Court of Appeals in Miami recently heard a Florida sexual assault case between two cruise boat crew members in a recent proceeding.

As mentioned earlier, the defendant was a crew member aboard a cruise ship and attempted to commit sexual battery against another crew member while the ship was in international waters. The defendant is a citizen of Grenada, and the victim is a citizen of Nicaragua. The cruise ship departed from Miami and returned to Miami, and almost all of the paying passengers boarded and disembarked in Miami. Following the attempted sexual battery, the defendant was taken into custody and confined to the brig of the ship until it returned to Miami, at which point Miami-Dade law enforcement took the defendant into custody. The defendant was then charged with battery, attempted sexual battery, and false imprisonment.

The defendant argued that the State did not have subject matter jurisdiction to prosecute him. The trial court denied the motion, and then the defendant pled guilty to attempted sexual battery and appealed to the Third District Court of Appeals.

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In a Florida kidnapping case, the issue on appeal was whether the defendant’s kidnapping convictions reflected Florida confinement law. The defendant argued that his actions did not constitute kidnapping because the Park at Nightmovements of his victims were slight and inconsequential and did not assist the commission of another crime.

The defendant allegedly approached the victims at a neighborhood park. There was a group of five men and two women hanging out at night. When the group was leaving the park, the defendant approached them and brandished a handgun. He ordered all of the victims on the ground and took personal items, including a cell phone and a wallet.

The defendant ordered the two women to disrobe. The defendant then brought them behind a large tree. He then proceeded to sexually assault one of the women. Eventually, one of the victims yelled for everyone to run, and everyone took off in different directions.

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