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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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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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When sex crime and other criminal cases involve more than one defendant, it can be tough to establish who committed what crime. That’s often made more complicated by co-defendants who turn on one another and blame each other for committing the crimes. A recent case out of Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal makes clear that courts look at “innocent bystander” defenses with quite a bit of skepticism.

wood gavelMr. Henry and another person where charged with robbing four teenagers at gunpoint and then forcing them to engage in multiple sex acts with each other. The teenagers – three boys and one girl – were smoking marijuana and playing cards in an abandoned house when Henry and his friend arrived and joined in. The other man pulled a gun, ordered the victims to put their stuff on a table, told the girl to take off her pants, and then used a pencil to penetrate her vagina, according to the court. Henry and the other man took turns holding the gun while directing the victims to perform various sex “scenes,” the court said. A third man eventually arrived at the house, confronted Henry and his friend and told the victims to leave.

Henry was convicted of four counts of false imprisonment, three counts of robbery and 17 counts of sexual battery with a firearm. He later appealed the sexual battery conviction, arguing that there wasn’t enough evidence to show that he performed a sex act, instructed any of the victims to perform a sex act or that he threatened or pointed a gun at any of the witnesses. He likened the situation to that in Lovette v. State, a 1994 cases in which the Florida Supreme Court scrapped sexual battery charges against a man involved in an armed robbery who was not in the room when his co-defendants committed sexual battery.

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Jury instructions are important in any criminal case. They’re particularly critical in cases in which a jury is tasked with deciding whether a person committed a felony or a related misdemeanor offense instead. A recent case out of Florida’s Supreme Court makes clear that judges don’t have the right to simply choose not to tell a jury that a person facing felony charges could instead be convicted of a misdemeanor.

judge's gavelF.W. was charged with various crimes related to his alleged molestation of three boys over an 11-year period from 2000 to 2011. At trial, all three boys testified that F.W. touched their genitals, and one victim testified that F.W. put the victim’s penis in his mouth. At the close of trial, the judge instructed the jury on the various crimes with which F.W. had been charged. The judge did not, however, tell the jury about the crime of offense of unnatural and lascivious act, a second degree misdemeanor.

F.W. was eventually convicted of two counts of lewd or lascivious molestation against a victim less than twelve years old, three counts of lewd or lascivious molestation against a victim between twelve and sixteen years old, and one count of lewd or lascivious battery against a victim less than sixteen years old. He was sentenced to life in prison. The Second District Court of Appeal later affirmed the conviction, rejecting F.W.’s claim that the judge should have allowed the jury to consider convicting him of the lesser offense of unnatural and lascivious act.

Electronic evidence like emails and text messages are often at the center of Florida sex crime cases. A recent federal case out of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals is a good example of how that evidence often comes into play.

In 2015, an FBI agent responded to a Craigslist ad posted by the defendant. The ad allegedly used code words indicating that he was looking to have sex with young children. The agent posed as the father of a 10-year-old boy and 13-year-old girl. The defendant expressed an interest in having sex with the kids during a series of subsequent email exchanges, according to the court. He later confirmed that interest in a recorded phone call. He was arrested after driving to the place where he and the agent had agreed to meet.cell phone

He consented to having his email and cellphone searched, along with his car. He also agreed to allow officers to assume his online identity. He admitted to posting several ads soliciting sex with children. He also acknowledged that he had agreed with the agent to meet for the purpose of having sex with a minor. A search of his cellphone turned up all of the emails with the FBI agent. He additionally told the cops that he had communicated with another person about having sex with the man’s 12-year-old child four years earlier. Those communications eventually ended when the man stopped responding, he told the police.

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Anyone charged with a crime in Florida has the right to have a fair and impartial jury of his or her peers determine guilt. The state’s Fourth District Court of Appeals recently explained in a sex crime case that jurors who make clear during the jury selection process that they can’t give the person charged a fair shake should be left off the jury.

justiceThe defendant was charged with a variety of crimes, including sexual activity with a child, lewd or lascivious molestation of a child over the age of 12 but under the age of 16, lewd or lascivious molestation of a child under the age of 12, sexual performance by a child, and showing obscene material to a child. At trial, his lawyers planned to argue that the defendant gave a false confession to the crimes when he was interviewed by the police as a suspect. One lawyer asked prospective jurors during the jury selection process whether they believe people confess to crimes they didn’t commit. The trial judge allowed two jurors to serve, although they expressed skepticism about false confessions, and the defendant’s lawyer asked for them to be removed from the jury pool.

The first juror said he did not believe a person would make a false confession. Even someone who did falsely confess to a crime probably was involved in the crime somehow, the juror said. “I think your question was would they agree to admitting to a crime that they did not commit and my answer to that would be no,” he said. The second juror also said it was hard to believe that a person would confess to a crime that he or she did not commit. “Something of this nature would just be very unreasonable for someone to admit guilt to,” he said. The juror later said a person would have to be “crazy” to wrongly confess to the kind of sex crimes with which the defendant was charged. He was eventually convicted of the crimes following trial.

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Florida law allows a person convicted of a sex crime as a minor to later ask to be removed from the sex offender registry under certain circumstances. Those circumstances often have to do with the nature of the crime for which the person was convicted, but judges also have the authority to consider the person’s record since that conviction. A recent case out of Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal is a good example of how later, unrelated Florida sex crime convictions can keep you on the sex offender list.

blank paperThe defendant was under the age of 18 when he was convicted in 2000 for lewd and lascivious battery on a child between the ages of 12 and 16. Florida law makes it a crime for a person to engage in any kind of sexual activity with a child between those ages. It also makes it a crime to encourage or entice a child to participate in sexual activity, prostitution, and other related behavior. The defendant was placed on probation and ordered to register as a sex offender. His probation was revoked the following year when he was convicted on new charges for selling cocaine and trespassing. He was eventually sentenced to 18 years in jail after additional convictions for robbery, resisting arrest, and battery on a law enforcement officer.

The defendant eventually argued that his sentence on the lewd and lascivious battery charge was illegal because it required him to register as a sex offender. The trial court said the original sentence was legal, and instead it treated his petition as a request to be removed from the sex offender registry. A person seeking removal from the sex offender registry has to meet several criteria, including the requirement that he or she was under 18 at the time of the offense and no more than four years older than the victim. The law also requires that the victim not have been less than 13 years old at the time of the offense.

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The Armed Career Criminal Act is a federal law that imposes higher mandatory minimum punishments on defendants if they are convicted of certain crimes three or more times. As the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently pointed out, some Florida sex offenses may qualify for enhanced sentencing under the federal law. That’s yet another reason why anyone suspected of or charged with a sex offense in the Sunshine State is well advised to seek the counsel of an experienced criminal defense attorney.

gunA defendant pleaded guilty to possession of firearm by a convicted felon, a federal crime, after police officers in Miami found him with a revolver. Prosecutors eventually argued that he was subject to a mandatory 15-year sentence behind bars under the ACA. That’s because he had previously been convicted of sexual battery, aggravated assault, attempted sexual battery, kidnapping, and resisting an officer with violence. A trial judge agreed, finding that the prior offenses qualified as violent crimes under the ACA. The defendant was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the conviction on appeal. The court explained that the ACA imposes a mandatory 15 years behind bars for a person convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm if the person has three or more convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses. The sexual battery conviction qualified as a violent felony, even though it’s not among the list of violent offenses included in the text of the ACA, according to the court.

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Evidence and procedural issues can make or break a Florida criminal case. One protection that anyone charged with a sex or other crime in Florida has is that the judge and jury in your case are generally not supposed to consider “other bad acts” when determining whether you have committed the crime with which you have been charged. There are a number of exceptions to this general rule, however, including some related to the sentencing phase of a trial. Florida’s First District Court of Appeal recently considered one of those exceptions in a child pornography case.

hands on keyboardA defendant was charged with 10 separate counts of possession of child pornography, a second-degree felony. He eventually pleaded “no contest” to the charges and was convicted. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison and another 30 years of sex offender probation. Although the sentence was within the bounds set by state law, he later appealed the decision. He argued that the trial judge improperly took into account unsubstantiated claims that he was interested in a sexual relationship with a child. Specifically, he said a police officer testified at trial that the defendant said in an online chat room that he would like to have sex with a 14-year-old boy. He argued that the judge wrongly held that evidence against him in sentencing him on the child pornography charges.

Affirming the decision on appeal, the court said the judge acted properly in imposing the sentence. “Although a sentence within statutory limits ‘is generally unassailable on appeal,’ there is an exception when a trial court bases its sentence on impermissible factors, like unsubstantiated allegations of other crimes,” the court explained. In this case, however, the court said there was no reason to believe that the judge based the sentence even partly on the defendant’s statements about wanting to have sex with a minor. The court said the defendant was not charged with any crime related to that comment and was convicted solely on the evidence showing that he had possessed child pornography.

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