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rightsIn 1998, the Florida legislature passed the “Jimmy Ryce Involuntary Civil Commitment for Sexually Violent Predators’ Treatment and Care Act” (“Ryce Act”). This is a mechanism for Florida courts to use civil commitment for individuals who have been designated as sexually violent predators. In other words, after someone has been convicted of a Florida crime and served their sentence, this law allows a way for the state to keep them isolated from the community.

Requirements for Sexually Violent Predator Status

In order for the state to take away someone’s right to be in the community beyond the time they are sentenced to, they need to prove that the defendant meets certain criteria. The purpose of this law is to keep the community safe from sex offenders who are likely to continue to commit sex crimes in the future.

The process for a defendant to be deemed a sexually violent predator (“SVP”) is not a criminal proceeding, but a civil proceeding. That means that defendants do not have all of the same rights that a defendant would have in a criminal trial. However, due to the significant liberty interests at stake, defendants are afforded many protections. (I am using the word “defendant” though it is not entirely accurate for the sake of simplicity as at one time the individual was a defendant from the original sex crime charges.)

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legal proceedingPart of why it is so important to have a skilled Florida criminal defense attorney on your side is that they may know about plea options that most people don’t know about. In other words, they may be able to ask the prosecutor for a plea deal that can help a defendant avoid some of the most harmful consequences of a conviction. Asking the judge to withhold adjudication is one of these potential options.

Withholding Adjudication

Florida law has a statute that allows judges to withhold adjudication in some circumstances. When adjudication is withheld, the defendant will usually have some kind of penalty, but since it is not a conviction it will not be on their record. The penalties vary but frequently include some kind of diversion program, counseling, probation, and/or community service hours. Of course the defendant needs to complete all of the requirements imposed by the court or else they will be convicted.

The main benefit of a withholding of adjudication is that the defendant will still have a clean record if this is their first offense. This can be a huge benefit when looking for employment, as many employers will ask applicants whether they have been convicted of a crime. If your adjudication has been withheld, you can honestly answer “no.” However, applicants should read the question closely because sometimes potential employers will ask instead whether applicants have been arrested, which defendant would then have to answer “yes” even if the conviction was withheld.

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Jury courtAfter a jury finds a defendant guilty, it does not necessarily mean that the process ends there. Defendants are given an opportunity to appeal their conviction, sometimes several opportunities depending on the circumstances. In order to be successful on appeal, the defendant needs to prove that there was an error during the trial. In other words, the defendant is essentially claiming that there was something unfair or erroneous that happened during the trial that makes the jury verdict invalid. Depending on the circumstances and specific grounds the defendant is basing their appeal on, if the defendant is successful in their appeal the charges may be thrown out completely or the defendant may get a new trial. Your knowledgeable St. Petersburg sex crimes criminal defense attorney can tell you what is likely to happen in your case if you are successful in your appeal.

The Case At Issue

In a case recently heard by the Florida First District Court of Appeal, a man was convicted of three counts of sexual battery of a child under twelve. The alleged victim is the defendant’s daughter. In his appeal he argued that he should get a new trial because he was not able to confront the witnesses against him. He also argued that he did not have meaningful assistance of counsel.

behind barsIn Florida there is a classification called “habitual felony offender,” or “HFO.” Florida law specifically defines who can be sentenced as an HFO. In this case the defendant was sentenced as an HFO but he argues that he should not have been classified as an HFO, because according to him the court lacked neutrality since they were looking for the alleged victim to appear and testify. In order to be classified as an HFO, defendants must meet certain requirements.

HFO Statute

Florida law requires that the court find three things in order for a defendant to be classified as an HFO. First, the state needs to prove that the defendant has previous separate felony convictions. These convictions cannot have been set aside or pardoned. The defendant must have two or more felony convictions in Florida or convictions for other qualified offenses.

The second prong of the test to determine who qualifies as an HFO requires that the defendant have committed the most recent felony while incarcerated or under supervision for a prior felony. Alternatively, the defendant can be considered an HFO if it has been five years or less since their last felony conviction or five years since they were released from prison or other confinement or monitoring. Finally, the statute makes clear that the felonies cannot be for purchase or possession of a controlled substance. Continue reading

criminal lawThe Florida Supreme Court is the highest court in Florida. Immediately below the Florida Supreme Court are the Florida Appeals Courts. There are five different districts in Florida that each have their own courts of appeal. Sometimes these courts will rule on cases in ways that conflict with each other. When this happens, then the Florida Supreme Court will often agree to hear the cases to make a decision on the issue. Then, the lower courts are required to follow the Florida high court’s ruling. The different levels of courts can be confusing, but your experienced Florida sex crimes defense attorney can help you to understand how your case will move through the courts and whether it is possible to appeal to a higher court.

Underlying Facts

While this case involves several lower court cases, it is centered on one particular case from the Fourth District Court of Appeal. In the case, a defendant was charged with burglary of a dwelling with an assault or battery while armed and masked, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon while masked, and attempted sexual battery using great force or a deadly weapon. He was found guilty on all of the charges.

behind barsThe defendant in this case was convicted for the first-degree murder of a correctional officer while he was an inmate in a correctional institution. He was sentenced to the death penalty. This appeal was based on a case that was decided after the defendant was convicted. In a case called Hurst, it was found unconstitutional for defendants to be sentenced to death when the sentence is not reached by a unanimous jury verdict. It also addressed the use of aggravating factors. This case relies on that precedent to argue that the defendant here should also not be sentenced to death.

Aggravating Factors

Florida death penalty laws are somewhat complicated. As part of the decision to penalize someone with death, the jury must consider certain aggravating and mitigating factors. Obviously, aggravating factors weigh toward a sentence of death and mitigating factors do not. Here, the court gave five different aggravating factors great or very great weight. They were: that the defendant was convicted of a felony before, and the felony involved violence, the crime was intended to disrupt a lawful governmental function, it was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel, and it was cold, calculated, and premeditated. Conversely, the court found no statutory mitigating factors and eight non-statutory mitigating factors that were given little to some weight.

juvenile defendantThe American criminal justice system understands that due to their age, minors do not have the same decision making skills as adults do. Thus, if a juvenile is accused of a crime, there may be defenses they can use that may not be available for adults. Of course every case is different and the best defense will depend on your circumstances. If you are being investigated or charged with a sex crime you should contact a skilled St. Petersburg sex crimes attorney as soon as possible. They can look at your circumstances and use their extensive knowledge of case law to help make sure that your rights are preserved.

Davis Case

In 2017, the Florida Supreme Court decided the Davis case, which they applied to the instant case to find that the sentence given to the defendant here should be vacated and a new penalty phase hearing should be conducted. In Davis, a man was arrested on two counts of first degree murder. He was found guilty by the jury of these murders. During the penalty phase of the trial, his attorneys presented mitigating evidence, including testimony about his cognitive functioning and mental health issues. There was little evidence proffered that supported aggravating factors for the sentencing. The jury recommended that the defendant be given two death sentences by a vote of nine to three for one of the murders and a vote of ten to two for the other murder.

Legal News GavelLaws change all the time. When the legislature is in session and passing new laws, these laws will usually have a date that they go into effect. However, sometimes a law can also apply retroactively. That means that even if the conduct occurred before the law was passed, the new law will still apply to it. One of the jobs of the court is to look at the rules around different kinds of laws and decide whether they should apply prospectively – meaning, only apply to conduct in the future from the date it was passed – or retroactively. If you have been charged with a crime, a skilled St. Petersburg defense attorney may be able to help you find new laws that could apply to your case.

Changes in the Stand Your Ground Law

A notable case revolves around the changes made to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. This law has been in effect since 2005. The “Stand Your Ground” law makes it so that individuals no longer have a duty to retreat before using force in self-defense. In the past, before resorting to self-defense, an individual had a duty to leave the premises if they could do so safely. It also protects those who use force in self-defense from legal charges. Initially, the burden was on the person who used force to prove by the preponderance of the evidence that the use of force was necessary to prevent great bodily harm or imminent death. However, a new law signed by the governor of Florida on June 9, 2017 changed the burden of persuasion in “Stand Your Ground” cases. The defendant only needs to make a prima facie showing of self-defense. Then, the new law puts the burden on the State to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the self-defense was not justified.

There are very specific rules about which kinds of evidence can be presented to the jury during a criminal case. If evidence is admitted that should not be, the evidence can be suppressed. If evidence crucial to the prosecution’s case is deemed to be inadmissible, the charges may be thrown out. Evidence that is admitted, but is later found to be improper, may result in the conviction being thrown out as long as it meets certain criteria. It is important to have a skilled St. Petersburg criminal defense attorney working on your case to make sure that any improper evidence is not admitted.Legal News Gavel

Chain of Custody

The chain of custody refers to the handling of evidence. In order to help authenticate evidence as being genuine, anyone who had access to or custody of the evidence should offer a sworn statement about their possession and handling of the evidence. Florida law requires that evidence be authenticated before it can be admitted. However, the threshold for this evidence is “relatively low.” All that is required is a prima facie showing that the evidence is authentic. In other words, almost any direct or circumstantial evidence can be used to show that the evidence is authentic.

During a trial, there are many decisions that a defendant and their counsel need to make. One of the most important decisions in many trials is whether or not the defendant should take the stand and testify on their own behalf. Many of the aspects of a trial, such as legal strategy and specific arguments to make, are generally the decision of the attorney. However, defendants have an absolute right to take the stand on their own behalf, whether or not their lawyer thinks this is a good plan. If an attorney does not allow the defendant to act as a witness on their own behalf, and the defendant is convicted, under some circumstances, the conviction may be thrown out due to ineffective assistance of counsel. If you are charged with a sex crime in St. Petersburg or the surrounding areas, it is important that you contact a skilled St. Petersburg sex crime attorney as soon as possible to help you craft your legal strategy.Legal News Gavel

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

In this case, the defendant was charged with lewd or lascivious molestation, unlawful sexual activity with a minor, and capital sexual battery. During the trial, the state presented a witness who had also accused the defendant of sexual abuse. A Florida law called the “Williams” rule allows the trial court to permit evidence leading to the conclusion that the defendant had committed similar crimes in the past. Since there was no physical evidence in the case that was being tried, the testimony of the alleged victim of a similar crime by the defendant was a large part of the state’s case. The victim of the crime with which the defendant was charged testified, but due to his mental disabilities, the other witness’ testimony was considered especially illuminating.