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No matter which kind of charges you are facing, it is important for a person accused of a crime in Florida to understand that prosecutors have the burden of proving your guilt. Specifically, they have to convince a judge or jury beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed the specific crime with which you were charged. As a recent case out of Florida’s First District Court of Appeal makes clear, it is the prosecutors’ fault if they charge you with the wrong crime.traffic

A defendant was charged with two counts of violating a state law that makes it a first-degree misdemeanor to drive a car while knowing that your driver’s license or driving privilege has been canceled, suspended, or revoked. He pleaded no contest to the charges but then filed a motion to dismiss them. The defendant argued that he could not be convicted because he never had a driver’s license. In other words, the defendant said his driving privileges had never been canceled, suspended, or revoked. A trial judge denied that motion, finding that the defendant could have had his driving privileges revoked even if he never had a license in Florida. But the judge also invited the First District to weigh in.

The appeals court eventually sided with the defendant. The First District said the law was ambiguous on this particular question because the state legislature didn’t define the term “driving privilege.” It noted, however, that a separate law requires anyone operating a motor vehicle in the Sunshine State to have “a valid license issued by the State of Florida or fall under an exception to licensure.” As a result, the court said the term driving privilege referred to anyone who can lawfully operate a vehicle in Florida, even if they don’t have a driver’s license. Since the defendant didn’t have a license and didn’t fall under one of the exceptions to the license requirement, the court said he should have been charged with driving without a license rather than driving with a revoked license.

Florida drug crime cases involving a defendant with mental and emotional conditions can raise a number of complicated legal issues. In some cases, a judge will hold a competency hearing to determine whether the person is mentally capable to stand trial. A recent decision out of Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal offers some insight into when a judge must hold a competency hearing.

colorful pillsA defendant was arrested and charged with various crimes related to his alleged involvement in a prescription drug trafficking ring. He eventually agreed to plead guilty to eight criminal offenses. In a hearing, however, he told the judge that he was under the influence of various prescription drugs to treat mental issues after being involved in some sort of accident. He told the judge that he often had trouble concentrating, but he said he was able to understand everything the judge and his lawyer were telling him. The judge eventually sentenced him to 25 years beyond bars.

The defendant’s doctor testified at the sentencing hearing that the defendant suffered from neurological problems that left him “simple” and “confused.” The doctor said he wasn’t capable of operating a multimillion dollar criminal enterprise like the prescription drug ring in which he was accused of being involved. Investigators, however, said the defendant was clear about the facts of the alleged crimes in several hours of police interviews. His ex-wife also said the defendant stopped going to doctor visits and continued to run the criminal operation, including by considering expanding it to Puerto Rico. As a result, the judge denied his request to reduce his sentence.

Anyone charged with a crime in Florida generally has the right to have the case decided by a jury. Closing arguments are an essential part of any jury trial. They allow lawyers for both sides one last opportunity to summarize the case for the people tasked with determining guilt or innocence. As Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal recently pointed out, however, there are some things that a prosecutor can’t say during that summary.

judge's gavelA defendant was charged with three crimes, including armed burglary of a dwelling. Prosecutors alleged at trial that he was fleeing from police when he entered into an unidentified home. Florida law defines burglary of a dwelling as the entering of a dwelling without an invitation and with the intent to commit a crime inside.

During closing arguments, a prosecutor told the jury that it was required to find the defendant guilty of the charge, even if they believed his version of the events. That’s because, according to the prosecutor, the defendant was committing the crime of resisting a police officer when he entered the dwelling. The prosecutor also said that the defendant’s demeanor when he testified clearly showed that he was guilty.

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The decision to get behind the wheel under the influence of alcohol or drugs is one that can have lasting consequences, both for the driver and for anyone else on the road. A DUI conviction in Florida means the possibility of steep fines, the loss of driving privileges, and jail time. Since the stakes are high in these cases, the law offers a person charged with DUI a number of possible defenses. That includes the rule against double jeopardy, Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal recently explained. The rule essentially states that a person can’t be convicted of the same crime twice.

banged up carA defendant was allegedly driving under the influence of illegal substances when she was involved in a car crash. She rear-ended another car, according to the court, causing serious injuries to two people in the other vehicles. She was charged with driving under the influence with serious bodily injury and driving while license suspended with serious bodily injury. She eventually pleaded guilty to all four offenses, each of which is a third-degree felony. She was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The defendant later appealed the convictions, arguing that the trial judge violated the rule against double jeopardy. She said both the DUI and DWLS charges were based on the same injuries and therefore could not be charged twice.

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Jury instructions are a key part of any criminal trial in Florida. The way that a judge instructs the jury about the evidence and the legal requirements necessary to return a conviction can make or break a Florida homicide or other criminal case. As a recent case out of the Florida Supreme Court shows, judges are also required to inform the jury if there are lesser offenses than those charged of which the person charged could be convicted instead.

gun and moneyA defendant was charged with attempted second-degree murder, possession of a firearm, and other crimes stemming from an incident in Duval County in which she allegedly shot a woman during a drug transaction gone awry. The victim testified at trial that her cousin got into a verbal argument with the defendant during a marijuana sale. She said the defendant pulled the gun after the argument escalated. The victim punched the defendant in the face when she saw the gun. The victim then raised her hands to protect her face when the defendant pointed it at her. The defendant fired the gun, wounding the woman in the hand and neck. The victim and two other witnesses said the victim was standing about 10 feet away from the defendant and was not moving toward her at the time of the shooting.

The defendant told the court that she had the gun at her side and was moving away from the victim after the woman punched the defendant in the face. She said she raised and fired the weapon in self-defense, concerned that she would have been jumped if she had not done so. The judge in the case explained the legal elements of second-degree murder, including the lesser offenses of aggravated battery and aggravated assault. The judge did not, however, inform the jury that the defendant could also be convicted on the lesser offense of attempted manslaughter. She was convicted of attempted second-degree murder and other offenses related to the gun and drugs.

Drug trafficking cases are treated very seriously in Florida and often come with the possibility of significant prison time and fines. That includes mandatory minimum sentences that force judges to send offenders to prison for a certain amount of time. The punishments in drug cases vary, however, based on the type and quantity of the drug involved.

colorful pillsThe Florida legislature occasionally updates criminal laws to reflect a better understanding of the dangers posed by different drugs. In 2014, for example, lawmakers updated criminal laws to treat two prescription painkillers – hydrocodone and hydromorphone – differently for drug trafficking purposes. As a recent decision out of the state’s First District Court of Appeals makes clear, those updates don’t apply to someone convicted before the law changed.

A defendant was charged with trafficking in hydrocodone in 2012. The prescription drug is a powerful painkiller that’s addictive and has been the source of a significant number of overdoses. The defendant was allegedly holding between 14 and 28 grams of the drug at the time. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

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A state appeals court in Lakeland recently issued an important decision that could have a significant impact on anyone charged with a Florida drug crime. The court pumped the brakes on what it called an increasingly common move to prevent a person charged with a crime from being released from jail pending trial, even when he or she has paid bail. Some judges in the Sunshine State and across the country had been slowing the release process by saying they want to look into how the person came up with the bail money. Thanks to Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal, those questions are now out of bounds.

cash stacksBail is a form of insurance for the criminal justice system. A person charged with a crime generally has the option to put up a certain amount of bail money in exchange for his or her release pending trial. The person gets the money back if he or she shows up at the trial. The idea is that the money ensures that the person will return to court.

The Second District case centered on a Florida man charged with various drug crimes. The judge hearing his case set the man’s bail but agreed with prosecutors to continue holding the man in jail pending a so-called “Nebbia” hearing. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in a 1966 case called United States v. Nebbia ruled that trial courts have discretion to look into how a person intends to pay bail in order to gauge whether he or she will show up for trial if released. Although that kind of hold may be allowable under federal court rules, the Florida appeals court said there was nothing in the state law justifying the move.

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The right to legal representation is a central part of any criminal defense. Judges take this right very seriously, as a recent decision in a murder case from Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal shows.

Hospital FloorThe defendant’s girlfriend was found dead in her home in Bradenton in June 2012. When they went looking for the defendant, the cops found that he had been involuntarily admitted for psychiatric treatment at Manatee Memorial Hospital earlier the same day. He had been acting erratically while visiting his parents. He was nervous, pacing, and unable to relax or slow down, according to the court. His mother later told police that he had previously suffered from similar mental health problems. His mother was informed by hospital staff that his girlfriend had been found dead when the mother tried to visit him in the hospital later the same day. She was barred from seeing her son until the cops arrived.

The mother obtained a lawyer – a friend of a fellow church member – to represent her son before the police came to the hospital. Although the lawyer informed hospital staff that he was representing the defendant and did not want the defendant talking to police alone, he too was barred from seeing him. The lawyer and the parents left the facility late in the evening with plans to return the next day.

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If you are charged with a crime in Florida, you have the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. A recent murder case in Miami tested the bounds of fairness and prejudice when the Third District Court of Appeal was asked to decide whether a jury should be able to see a video of a person confessing to a crime while wearing a prison uniform and handcuffs.

steel cuffsThe defendant was charged with a 2002 murder during a botched robbery in Miami. The case remained unresolved for some 10 years before police had a breakthrough using fingerprint tracing technology. They eventually matched prints from the crime scene to another man by using a national database. This other man implicated the defendant, and the son of the person killed in the robbery picked the defendant out of a photo lineup. The cops tracked the defendant down to a prison in Pennsylvania, where he was serving time on unrelated charges. He agreed to do a video interview and waived his rights to an attorney. He confessed to committing the robbery, but he said it was the other man who pulled the trigger.

The defendant was eventually charged with first-degree murder. Before the trial began, he asked the judge to allow the jury only to hear an audio version of his prison interview with the police. He argued that he would be unfairly prejudiced if the jury saw him giving the interview in handcuffs and prison garb. The judge disagreed. The defendant was convicted, based on the confession, the victim’s son’s identification, and DNA evidence taken from a baseball cap left at the crime scene.

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Florida criminal laws include quite a considerable number of lesser offenses when it comes to being charged with a crime. Getting a charge knocked down to a lesser offense can mean the difference between years behind bars and months in jail or simple probation, in some cases. The state Supreme Court recently took up a Florida robbery case that illustrates just how nuanced the legal arguments can be in determining whether a person convicted of a crime should be sentenced for a lesser offense.

black gun

A defendant (D.D.) was convicted of two charges of robbery with a deadly weapon, which is a first-degree felony that can come with as much as 30 years behind bars, for his role in two alleged robberies in Florida. A state appeals court eventually ordered the trial judge to reduce the convictions to robbery with a weapon. The court explained that the evidence presented at trial showed only that one weapon was used in the robbery:  a handgun or a BB gun that looked a lot like the real thing.

Affirming the decision on further appeal, the Florida Supreme Court first noted that D.D. had never actually been charged with robbery with a deadly weapon. Instead, the court said that he had originally  been charged with robbery with a firearm. Since it was unclear whether the weapon involved was an actual handgun or a BB gun, the court held that the trial judge should have knocked the charge down to robbery with a weapon.

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