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Search and seizure issues often come up in Florida drug crime cases. Generally, police are required to get a warrant from a judge in order to search a person’s home, car, or even cell phone records. In many cases, however, courts have said the warrant requirement may not be feasible. That’s why police can sometimes search cars without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe that there’s evidence of a crime inside. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently explained how the car search exception works in a Bay County drug case.

Squad CarA defendant was charged with three drug crimes in 2013. He was released from prison while awaiting trial on those charges when he failed to show up at a pretrial conference. A court in Bay County issued a warrant for his arrest. The court issued a second arrest warrant in 2014, when he failed to show for a hearing in a separate criminal mischief case. U.S. Marshals eventually used cell phone data to track him to a Dollar General store – thanks to another warrant, this time allowing cops to search his phone info – where they found and arrested him. The officers also found the key to a Ford Taurus and a gun in a plastic bag on his person. They located the car – which the officers said smelled heavily of marijuana – and found a variety of drugs, five more guns, and $6,700 in cash. The defendant was charged with possession with intent to distribute various drugs and possession of firearms.

At trial, his lawyers asked a federal judge to exclude the firearms and drug evidence gained from the Ford Taurus from the case against him. The judge rejected that request, finding that the officers had probable cause to search the car based on the smell of marijuana emanating from the vehicle. The defendant was eventually convicted on all of the charges and sentenced to nearly nine years in prison.

Federal and state laws substantially limit the circumstances in which police officers can search you or your stuff without a warrant. Those limits often come into play in Florida drug crime cases, in which debates over how the drugs in question were uncovered by the police can make or break a case. A recent decision from Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal sheds some light on how judges look at search and seizure questions.

Bike on grassA defendant was charged with possession of marijuana, oxycodone, and drug paraphernalia following an incident in which Miami police officers stopped him in an area known as a haven for illegal dirt bike driving. State and local laws generally ban people from riding motorized dirt bikes on public streets. A pair of police officers monitoring the area heard the roar of a dirt bike and saw the defendant driving in their direction. The bike did not have headlights, taillights, turn signals, or a license plate. The officers followed in their patrol car. They activated their lights and siren after the defendant ran a red light. He tried to speed away but fell off the bike.

The cops apprehended the defendant and handcuffed him. They also searched his backpack after he said he had proof that he owned the bike in the front compartment of the bag. Although the defendant specifically asked the officers not to look in the main compartment, they did so after smelling marijuana. They found marijuana, oxycodone, and drug paraphernalia. The defendant eventually entered a guilty plea after a judge refused to exclude the backpack evidence from the case against him.

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Witness testimony can make or break a criminal case, whether it’s jay walking or manslaughter. In a recent case out of Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal, the court looked at a supposed jailhouse confession that seemed to exonerate a man who had already been convicted of murder.

Prison CellsThe defendant was convicted for his alleged role in the killing of another man in Polk County. The victim was staying with his girlfriend and her family in November 2012 when he disappeared. The victim, who left the home after an argument with his girlfriend, was found dead in a nearby orange grove. He had a headshot wound in the back of the head, but police officers did not find a gun and weren’t able to recover any fingerprints from the site.

The defendant was later charged with the murder. Prosecutors alleged that he killed the victim with the help of the brother of the victim’s girlfriend. A friend of the victim, who was involved in a marijuana dealing operation with him, testified that the defendant told him that the defendant and the brother committed the murder.

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Conspiracy is a common charge in Florida drug cases that generally refers to an agreement between two or more people to commit a crime. Many conspiracy cases succeed or fail based on whether prosecutors can actually prove such an agreement. As Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal recently explained, however, prosecutors also have to prove the intent to commit the crime.

gun and moneyTwo defendants were charged with a number of criminal offenses stemming from a shooting and alleged drug conspiracy in Hillsborough County. Prosecutors presented evidence, according to the court, showing that a third man had called one of the defendants to arrange the purchase of a small amount of marijuana. The third man, who the court says suffers from a debilitating medical condition that he treats with marijuana, arrived at the designated transaction place in a car driven by his mother. He called the defendant several times after arriving at the spot. When the two defendants approached the car, the man tried to direct their attention to his mother, who was waving a $20 bill. The defendant who talked to the man on the phone responded by saying “my homeboy’s got it.” He allegedly pulled a gun on the man shortly thereafter and shot the man’s mother in the face when the car sped off.

The defendant who did not talk to the victim on the phone, whose case was separated from the other defendant’s case for trial, was eventually convicted of principal to felony battery causing great bodily harm and conspiracy to deliver less than 20 grams of cannabis. The Second District affirmed the first conviction on appeal. It overturned the drug conviction, however, finding that prosecutors failed to prove a conspiracy. The court explained that prosecutors had to show that the defendant intended to deliver marijuana to the victim and that he “agreed, conspired, combined, or confederated” with another person to deliver the marijuana. There was no evidence of either element of the criminal offense, the court said.

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If you are convicted of a Florida theft crime, the sentencing stage can have a huge impact on not only your future but also your family’s future. Probation and alternative sentences are often available in criminal cases. Even if you’re looking at prison time, it’s important to make the strongest possible case for the shortest possible stretch behind bars. Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals recently explained that there are limits on the evidence that judges can take into account when making a sentencing decision.

Prison CellsThe defendant was arrested, charged, and convicted of robbery and carjacking stemming from an incident in Tampa. He was allegedly involved in a variety of other incidents while being held in a local jail, awaiting trial. Following his conviction, the judge held a hearing to determine how he would be punished for the crime. Prosecutors asked the judge to send him to prison for 15 years. They called several correctional officers who worked at the jail where the defendant was being held to testify. Those officers told the court that the defendant was involved in at least two physical altercations at the facility and that they found papers in his cell indicating that he was affiliated with the Latin Kings, a well-known jail gang.

The prosecutors also presented a statement from the carjacking victim, who talked about how the crime had affected her life. The victim asked the judge to give the defendant the maximum sentence allowable under the law. The judge eventually sentenced him to 12 years behind bars. On appeal, however, the Second District said the trial court wrongly relied on evidence of his misdeeds in jail in imposing the penalty. It cited the state Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling in Norvil v. State, in which the high court said a court can’t use a person’s subsequent crimes without convictions to support a sentence for earlier, unrelated crimes.

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Florida law is often strict when it comes to doling out punishments for crimes, even when the person charged is a juvenile. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has established some limits on harsh sentencing for people under the age of 18, states still have a lot of leeway to put juveniles behind bars for long stretches of time. Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal recently explained that judges have the power to impose mandatory minimum sentences on juvenile offenders.

Gun and MoneyMr. Young was 17 years old when he was charged with armed robbery, a Florida gun crime that’s punishable by up to life in prison. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years behind bars, the mandatory minimum punishment under state law. Young later appealed the sentence, arguing that it violated the U.S. Constitution. Young’s attorneys told the court that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment bars the state from imposing mandatory minimum sentences. That’s because those sentences don’t allow judges to consider individual circumstances or to take into account that juveniles may have more capacity for reform, they said.

The Fifth District disagreed. “The court clearly allowed for the consideration of Young’s age in fashioning its sentence, as evidenced by Young receiving the lowest permissible sentence for his crime,” the court said. “Although we acknowledge that the 10-year mandatory minimum sentence required here does limit, to some extent, the discretion of a trial court in sentencing a juvenile offender, we do not view this modest limitation as a constitutional infirmity.”

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The term “gun possession” may seem like a pretty straightforward one. Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal recently explained, however, that there are many ways in which a person may be considered to “possess” a firearm. Even if the person isn’t actually holding the gun, he or she may be found to have constructive possession of it if the person knows about the weapon and has the power to exercise control over it.

black gun

The defendant was convicted of a felony in 2006 for trying to float a bad check. Some eight years later, she was arrested and charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. She argued that the guns in her home actually belonged to her recently deceased husband. She said she was hard up for cash after her husband passed away in 2014, and she decided to sell his guns to make ends meet while waiting for a life insurance policy to come through.

The defendant said she went with a friend to a pawn shop to sell the weapons. Although she gave the shop her fingerprints as part of the transaction, she said her friend handled the guns the entire time. A pawn shop employee working at the time could not remember the details of the transaction. The officer who arrested the defendant didn’t personally observe the transaction. At trial, the court sided with the defendant, finding that prosecutors failed to prove she actually “possessed” the weapons in the way the state legislature had in mind when it passed the law banning felons from having firearms. As a result, the court dismissed the charges against the defendant.

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One of the most important things that anyone charged with a Florida theft crime should know is that the burden is at all times on prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed the crime. That means they have to prove more than just a hunch, and they have to do more than show that you probably committed the crime. As the state’s Second District Court of Appeals recently explained, that means in auto theft cases that prosecutors have to show that the car in which the person charged was caught is the car that was stolen.

judge's gavelOne afternoon in May 2016, a man drove a silver Dodge Dart to his aunt’s house in Tampa. He came to retrieve some paperwork from his cousin. He left keys in the car – a rental – along with his cell phone, his wallet, and a bag of clothes. He also left the car windows down. The car was gone when he returned a few minutes later. He contacted police but wasn’t able to remember the vehicle’s license plate number.

The following night, a Tampa police officer observed a silver Dodge Dart roll through a stop sign, make a quick lane change, and make several quick turns before running another couple of stop signs. The three people inside the car – two men and one woman – jumped out and started running away when the officer approached. The officer eventually apprehended the woman, identified in court documents as “VG.” She was arrested and charged with grand theft auto and burglary, among other charges.

State and federal criminal laws often overlap and intertwine, particularly when it comes to drugs and guns. Law enforcement of every stripe takes these cases very seriously, but federal laws tend to be significantly harsher. In a recent Central Florida gun crime case, a federal district court upheld the U.S. government’s right under the Constitution to impose those penalties, as long as the feds can prove some very minimal connection to interstate commerce.

Gun and MoneyThe defendant was arrested and charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, a federal crime. He was eventually sentenced to five years in jail, a sentence that was increased because he had previously been convicted of drug trafficking. He later appealed the sentence, arguing that the feds didn’t have the authority to charge him under the circumstances. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit disagreed.

The Court explained that the federal law banning felons from having guns stems from the federal government’s power under the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause. That clause directly authorizes the feds “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” It has been read broadly to give the government wide enforcement authority over anything that has some connection to commerce between states.

If a police officer wants to stop you on the street, he or she has to have a reasonable suspicion to believe that you have committed or are committing a crime. A recent case out of Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals involving an alleged Tampa burglary crime is a good example of just how seriously judges take that requirement.

police handcuffsThe case stemmed from an incident on the University of South Florida campus. A man testified that he was driving near the campus when he noticed two people fighting. He said he observed a young man in a white tank top and jeans on a bicycle trying to get away from a young woman pulling on his tank top and yelling “he stole my phone.” The man on the bike swung his arms at the woman and was able to shake her off and get away.

A USF police officer later responded to the scene and said she noticed three suspects on bikes in the area. She said one of the suspects was wearing a white tank top and shorts. The officer flashed her vehicle’s police lights and yelled “stop, police,” but the man in the tank top fled the scene. A Tampa police officer later apprehended a person whom the court called “B.M.” in a shed in a residential backyard. The USF officer identified B.M. as the person who had fled. He was charged with resisting an officer and burglary. The officers did not recover the missing phone. B.M. was eventually convicted on both charges and sentenced to juvenile probation.

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