Articles Posted in Sex Crimes

A person who is charged with a Florida sex crime generally has the right to have his or her guilt decided by a jury. When these cases go to trial in Florida, closing arguments are an essential part of the process because they are the last chance for lawyers on both sides to make their cases to the people tasked with making a decision. Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal recently explained that prosecutors have some leeway as to how they make those arguments.

male-lion-1397026Defendant was charged with lewd or lascivious molestation of a child under the age of twelve. He allegedly molested his step-daughter’s friends while they were sleeping over at his home. One of the girls testified that Defendant touched her inappropriately while she was pretending to be asleep on one occasion and placed her hand on his penis on another occasion. The two other girls—called as witnesses to establish that Defendant had a penchant for this behavior—said they were similarly molested.

A state prosecutor addressed the jury in closing statements at the end of trial. The prosecutor told the jury that he’d recently been watching a documentary on lions, who attack their prey in the dark, and that it reminded him of Defendant. That is exactly what the defendant did, the prosecutor said. “He came in when they were supposed to be sleeping and he … did what he wanted to do to them, touching them” in an inappropriate way. The defendant was eventually convicted of the charges.

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The mental stability of the person charged with a crime is often at the center of Florida sex crime cases. Generally, a court may determine that a defendant doesn’t have the mental capacity to adequately understand the charges against him. In these situations, a judge may postpone or scrap criminal proceedings against the person. But the judge also has the authority to order that the defendant be committed to a secure facility in the meantime. A recent case out of Florida’s First District Court of Appeal is a good example of some of the legal issues that can come up in these types of cases.

police lightsDefendant was charged in 1996 with committing two counts of lewd and lascivious acts in the presence of a child. A court eventually deemed him incompetent to stand trial on those charges because of an intellectual disability. The charges were later dropped when Defendant was civilly committed to a secure residential facility. Defendant eventually went back to court, asking to be released from the facility. He argued that the court no longer had jurisdiction over the case because the maximum penalty he could face for the charges was 15 years and he had spent more than that time in the facility. The trial court disagreed.

Affirming the decision on appeal, the First District agreed with Defendant that he couldn’t be forced to spend more time in the facility than the maximum possible penalty for the crimes with which he was charged. But it also agreed with the trial judge that Defendant could get up to 15 years for each offense. At the time the state legislature passed a law limiting secure facility detention, the court said there was already a separate statute in place allowing judges to sentence criminal defendants to consecutive (running one after the other) instead of concurrent (running at the same time) jail stretches for each offense.

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Probation is often an attractive alternative to prison time for anyone convicted of a Florida sex crime. A recent case out of Florida’s Supreme Court, however, makes clear that probation sentences can come with some fairly restrictive terms and conditions.

hands on keyboardDefendant was arrested in 2009 and charged with lewd computer solicitation of a child and traveling to meet a minor for unlawful sexual activity. He pleaded guilty to both charges. He also asked the judge for sex offender probation and house arrest instead of prison time. The judge rejected that request, sentencing Defendant to four years behind bars, followed by 11 years of sex offender probation.

The judge also made clear as a term of Defendant’s probation that he was barred from accessing the internet, possessing a computer or smartphone that has internet access, and having an email address. Defendant went back to court after serving his prison time. He appealed the probation portion of the sentence, arguing that the judge imposed additional terms on the probation, including a mandatory curfew, a ban on living within 1,000 feet of a school, child care facility, park, playground, or other place where children regularly congregate, and the completion of a sex offender treatment program. Defendant said the court couldn’t impose those restrictions because the judge didn’t announce them orally at the original sentencing hearing.

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A federal appeals court recently took up a case in which a trial court sought to effectively put a man convicted of various child pornography offenses in Florida behind bars for life. The appeals court said that sentence might have been overly harsh, given the unique circumstances of the case. It also shed some light on search and seizure issues in Florida sex crime cases.

Defendant was charged with various crimes related to the possession and distribution of child pornography, stemming from his use of a smartphone application messaging board called Kik. He allegedly used false names to send nude photos of girls to young boys and asked them to send nude photos of themselves in return. At least some of the boys responded by providing the photos of themselves, according to the court. When some tried to end the conversations with Defendant, he allegedly threatened to post the photos on Instagram and other social media platforms unless they sent more photos. Defendant also allegedly traded the photos with another online user in exchange for various child pornography photos and videos.cell phone

The FBI began monitoring Defendant’s Kik account after receiving complaints. FBI agents eventually traced the account to the home where Defendant lived with his parents and sister. They determined that he was the most likely user of the account in the house. They interviewed Defendant, who eventually admitted to using the account to trade the nude photos. He also agreed to allow the agents to search his electronic devices. When he was later charged with various federal crimes, Defendant asked a judge to keep out from trial his confession to the agents and all of the evidence obtained during the searches. Defendant argued that the agents intimidated Defendant and his family in a way that made him feel he had no choice but to admit that he was using the account and consent to the search. A trial judge disagreed. He was convicted and sentenced to 139 years in prison.

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The Florida Supreme Court in 2015 clarified its position on when a person can be charged with soliciting sex and traveling after soliciting sex without running afoul of the rule against double jeopardy, which bans multiple convictions for the same crime. In a recent case, Florida’s First District offered some important insight into how appeals courts are interpreting that ruling. Essentially, multiple text or other messages can be considered different solicitations under Florida sex crime laws.

A defendant was charged with two crimes after exchanging sexually explicit text messages with an undercover police officer who he thought was a 14-year-old girl and then traveling to Tallahassee to meet the person for sex. He was convicted of traveling for sex with a child after using a computer to solicit a child for sex and using a computer to solicit a child for sex. He argued on appeal that the convictions violated the rule against double jeopardy by punishing him twice for the same crime.

wood gavelThe First District initially rejected the double jeopardy argument but decided to take another look at the case after the Florida Supreme Court ruled in a case called State v. Shelley. The high court in that case said solicitation and traveling after solicitation cannot be treated as separate crimes if they are “based upon the same conduct.” But the First District said that ruling didn’t change the outcome of this defendant’s case.

To search your phone for evidence of a crime, police officers generally need to get a warrant from a judge or show that they have probable cause to believe that there’s evidence of a crime on the device. Even in cases in which a judge grants a warrant, any evidence obtained from the search is likely to be excluded at trial if the warrant wasn’t issued based on probable cause. As a federal court in Pensacola recently pointed out, however, judges get a lot of leeway in deciding whether to issue a warrant.

cell phoneA defendant was charged in February with one count of knowingly possessing and accessing child pornography. The charge came after he went to a local MetroPCS store in Pensacola, looking for some assistance with his cell phone. The MetroPCS employee assisting him observed a large amount of pornographic material stored on the phone. The employee also said she saw a folder marked “underage,” which she didn’t open. The employee contacted a tip line at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The defendant, who was already a registered sex offender, was arrested by state police on a separate charge for failing to tell authorities that he had moved. State police took the cell phone and turned it over to the FBI, which obtained a warrant from a judge authorizing law enforcement officers to search the phone. They allegedly found some 40 images of child pornography. The defendant sought to have that evidence kept out of the trial against him. He argued that the affidavit the FBI filed in court to get the warrant wasn’t based on probable cause. The district court disagreed.

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The rule against hearsay generally bans one person from testifying in court about what another person, like a witness or victim, said outside of court, if it’s being used to prove a fact. In other words, a witness generally can’t testify in court that the victim told him who committed the crime. Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal recently pointed out one of many important limits on this rule: It can’t stop other evidence proving the same fact to be entered into the record.

old recorderMr. Jefferson was charged with attempted armed sexual assault and armed false imprisonment, stemming from an incident near the Aventura Mall in South Florida. An 18-year-old woman was walking home from her job at the mall when Jefferson asked her repeatedly if she needed a ride and told her to get in. The woman obliged because it was raining heavily. She later said that Jefferson drove in the wrong direction and then offered her money to have sex with him. Jefferson grabbed her and pulled out a gun when she refused, she said. The woman managed to escape – without her cell phone and one shoe – when Jefferson pulled in to a nearby park. A local homeowner called 911 when the woman began screaming when she was caught on a fence attempting to escape Jefferson, according to the court.

Jefferson admitted at trial that he had picked up the woman and offered to pay her for sex. He also said she refused and ran away once the car was parked. Prosecutors introduced the 911 tape – which included the victim and the homeowner speaking with an emergency operator – among other evidence at trial. They also introduced testimony from a local police officer about what the homeowner told him the day after the incident. According to the officer, the homeowner said he heard woman screaming, went out to check, found the victim stuck on a fence, and saw a man walking to a black car nearby.

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Jury selection is a critical part of any Florida criminal trial, including those that involve sex offenses. Lawyers have the opportunity to remove certain people from the jury pool, but judges wield much of the power in determining who makes it into the jury box. In a recent decision, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal explained that judges are also expected to take certain steps to ensure that jurors check certain biases at the door.

judge's gavelA defendant was charged with lewd or lascivious molestation of a child under the age of 16, showing obscene material to a child, and lewd or lascivious exhibition in the presence of a child. His attorney asked during the jury selection process whether the potential jurors agreed that children don’t lie about sexual abuse. One juror in particular, a social worker whose employer had been involved in two high-profile pedophilia cases in another state, drew the trial court’s attention. She told the lawyer that her experience in more than 35 years of social work was that children don’t lie when it comes to allegations of sexual abuse.

Although the judge advised the woman that jurors are not supposed to apply their own personal experience to the law or jury instructions, the woman reiterated that that she felt strongly that children do not lie about sexual abuse. She rated the strength of that opinion as a “9 or 9.5” out of 10. The defendant’s attorney asked that she be excluded from the jury pool for cause, based on her opinion. The judge rejected that request but allowed the attorney to use a peremptory challenge to exclude her from the jury. The defendant was eventually convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

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DNA evidence can play a critical role in Florida sex crime cases, but it also has some limits. In many cases, DNA evidence may confirm that the person charged with the crime and the victim had some sort of sexual contact, but it can’t determine whether that contact was consensual. Similarly, DNA from a third person may show that the victim recently had sex with more than one person, but it can’t determine the source of any injuries often associated with a sex crime. Florida’s First District Court of Appeals recently explained some of the restrictions on using third-party DNA evidence in sex crime cases.

DNA containersA defendant was charged with sexual battery following an incident with a student at the University of West Florida in Pensacola. The woman invited him to her dorm room one day after the two met off campus. They talked for a while and started kissing. That’s when, according to the court, the defendant became more aggressive. He closed the door and turned off the lights, the court said. The he allegedly held the woman down, grabbed her neck, pulled down her pants and “forced himself on her,” according to the court. He was arrested after the victim’s friends called the police when she told them what had allegedly happened.

The defendant argued at trial that the sex was consensual. The victim testified that he raped her. The trial court declined his request to enter into evidence DNA samples from a third person that were taken from the victim’s underwear shortly after the encounter. He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

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Florida law allows state authorities to involuntarily detain a person who is otherwise free if he or she has been deemed a sexually violent predator. In order to be subject to potential civil commitment under state law, a person must have a criminal history of sexually violent activity. As the Fourth District Court of Appeal recently explained, however, that history has to be based on actual criminal convictions rather than mere allegations.

justice scalesA defendant was incarcerated and set to be released from jail when state prosecutors filed a lawsuit asking a judge to tag him as a sexually violent predator and commit him to a secure treatment facility. The prosecutors alleged that he was previously convicted for two counts of lewd and lascivious acts on a minor and said he suffered from multiple personality disorder. They claimed that he was likely to commit future offenses if he was not treated and kept in long-term custody.

At trial, the defendant asked the court to bar evidence of two other instances in which he allegedly molested teenagers. He was arrested in each instance but was never charged with a crime. He also asked that the judge exclude evidence of a 2010 case in which he was charged with attempted sexual battery but found guilty of simple battery, a lesser offense. The judge declined each of the requests. Prosecutors, meanwhile, presented one witness. A psychologist described the three instances of alleged Florida sex crimes for which the defendant was never charged or convicted and concluded that he was a sexually violent predator who required commitment and treatment. The jury eventually decided that he should be involuntarily detained and treated.

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