Articles Posted in Criminal Defense

The jury selection process is a crucial part of any Florida homicide or other criminal trial. Decisions about who winds up determining whether you committed the crime with which you are charged can make or break a case. A Florida appeals court recently reiterated an important protection against discrimination in the jury selection process. The Fourth District Court of Appeal said a judge can’t remove a potential juror from the pool based on his or her religion.

wood gavelThe defendant in this case was among a group of criminal defendants charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder in Broward County. During the jury selection phase, state prosecutors sought to use one of their peremptory strikes to keep a woman off the jury because she is a Jehovah’s Witness. One prosecutor told the judge he was concerned that in his experience, Jehovah’s Witnesses decline to “sit in judgment” of others. Although the woman said she would have no problem finding the defendant and the others guilty if the evidence was sufficient, the prosecutor said he thought she would apply a higher burden of proof than required under the law.

The judge eventually agreed to strike the juror from the panel. The defendant filed a motion for a mistrial, which the judge denied. He and the other defendants were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. But the Fourth District reversed that conviction on appeal. The court said the woman’s religion was not a sufficient reason for removing her from the panel.

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Jury instructions are a key part of any Florida sexual battery case. They can mean the difference between a conviction and a not guilty decision. In a recent case out of the Fifth District Court of Appeals involving an attempted sexual battery in Central Florida, the court explained how improper instructions can create lots of confusion.

gavelThe defendant was charged with attempted sexual battery on a physically helpless person, stemming from an incident in which he allegedly attempted to have sex with a female coworker who had passed out from drinking. He was at a bar with colleagues when the victim passed out in a grassy area outside the bar, according to the court. The defendant and others took the woman to another coworker’s van and returned to the bar. He later went back to the van, claiming that he was going to check on the woman. When the van’s owner went to the vehicle, however, she allegedly found the defendant with his pants down, standing over the victim. The victim’s pants and underwear were down.

At trial, the jury heard taped phone conversations between the defendant and the victim. The defendant, who did not testify at trial, said in those conversations that he “attempted and probably did try to have sex with” the victim, according to the court. He was convicted. He later appealed the decision, arguing that the jury received improper instructions at the close of trial. Specifically, the jury was instructed that he was charged with attempt to commit attempted sexual battery. That crime doesn’t exist. As a result, the jury was wrongly told that he could be convicted if he attempted to attempt sexual battery on the victim.

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The concept of “scrivener’s error” is certainly applicable to the legal system, although it’s not especially technical. In fact, it’s known by most as a “typo.” Courts systems require human labor to draft legislation, motions, and written judgments, so sometimes mistakes are made. In the criminal law context, the omission of a word or phrase can lead to unintended consequences. Fortunately, there’s a mechanism for addressing scrivener’s error in trial court decisions. In fact, the appellate court for the Second District addressed this issue in a recent Florida burglary case, Morgan v. State.

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Florida appeals court decisions in criminal cases show that scrivener’s error is not uncommon and can lead to significant changes to a judgment entered against a defendant. In 2004, the Second District Court of Appeals decided a case in which the trial court orally imposed concurrent sentences of 10 years’ imprisonment. The written judgment, however, reflected consecutive sentences for a total of 20 years’ imprisonment.  Moreover, in 2010, the First District Court of Appeals decided a case in which the defendant had been found guilty of a violation of his probation for “not possessing any firearm or weapon.” However, the defendant was only convicted of marijuana possession, and no gun was present. The appeals court ruled that this was a scrivener’s error and that the defendant’s probation violation could not have been attributed to a gun crime. The Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure also allow for the modification of a sentence in order to correct a scrivener’s error, but only if the correction would benefit a criminal defendant.

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Law enforcement has broad discretion to enforce the laws. Still, it’s sometimes surprising to see how far a case can proceed before a court overturns a conviction. In fact, the defendant in a recent Florida grand theft decision was arguably doing his job as a repo man when he was charged with grand theft auto and theft of property. It wasn’t until the appeals court heard his case, after a conviction, that he was cleared of the crimes.

Car and Police
The defendant was formerly a bail bond agent, who had his license revoked. He started working with another agent to provide bond premium financing. One individual sought his services for a loan and provided the title to her vehicle as security. After she defaulted on the loan, the defendant re-possessed her vehicle. The defendant and his co-worker notified the police that the re-possession occurred as a result of delinquent loan payments. The car owner had several personal belongings in the car. She reported to the police that her car and its contents had been stolen. The defendant was arrested and charged with grand theft auto and theft of property. His defense attorney moved for judgment of acquittal on all of the charges because the defendant lacked the requisite intent for grand theft auto, and the theft charge would be a double jeopardy violation. The trial court denied the motion.

The crime of theft is a specific intent offense. Under Florida law, specific intent requires that the prosecution show that the defendant was aware that he or she was unlawfully taking another party’s property. In contrast, Florida courts have held that a person who takes possession of another party’s property with the good-faith belief that he or she has a right to the property lacks the specific intent to commit theft.

Crimes with a statute of limitations are required to be prosecuted within a defined period of time. This helps ensure that evidence for the prosecution is still available at trial and encourages law enforcement to actively seek to resolve crimes. A Florida appeals court recently determined that the limitations period had expired against a criminal defendant who was charged with lewd and lascivious conduct, a Florida sex crime.

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The defendant was the former boyfriend of the alleged victims’ mother. After the mother abandoned her children, they were placed in their grandmother’s care. The defendant continued to be a part of the children’s lives. The two children, along with their brother, went to the defendant’s apartment one day to clean it. At the time, the two children in question were 12 years old and 10 years old. The defendant allegedly engaged in sexual acts with both the 12-year-old and the 10-year-old while they were cleaning his home. On the 12-year-old’s next birthday, the defendant gave her an inappropriate, sexually suggestive birthday gift. When the girl’s grandmother found it, she prohibited the defendant from having any further contact with the children.

The applicable statute of limitations, at the time of the crime, for lewd and lascivious molestation of a child between the ages of 12 and 16 years (Florida Statutes Section 800.04(5)(c)) was three years from the date that the crime was committed. However, the limitations period for that offense does not begin to run until the victim has reached the age of 18 or the violation has been reported to law enforcement.

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