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Criminal courts have very specific rules around what kind of evidence can and cannot be admitted at trial. This includes the kind of things that different witnesses can testify about. Your knowledgeable Tampa criminal defense attorney can help you understand how these rules can apply in your situation.

Expert vs. Lay Witnesses

Generally, there are two kinds of witnesses that may testify at trial: lay and expert witnesses. Obviously, expert witnesses are people who have some kind of specialized knowledge or expertise in an area. For example, in an arson case a fire expert may be able to testify as to how fires spread when accelerant is used. Whereas a lay witness is supposed to testify about things that they experienced themselves, rather than things they know. So if someone witnessed the defendant running away from the scene of the crime, they may testify about that but not about anything that requires expertise. If a lay witness testifies about something that requires expertise, the attorney for the other side can object to the testimony.

In the United States, criminal defendants do have the right to defend themselves. However, a United State Supreme Court case called Faretta clarified that a defendant’s waiver of counsel is only valid as long as it is knowingly and intelligently made. Essentially, a defendant needs to be competent enough to understand the ramifications of their actions. While defendants do have the right to represent themselves, it is generally a bad idea. That’s why defendants should always contact a skilled Tampa criminal defense attorney as soon as they are arrested.

General Competency

Whether a defendant is represented by counsel or representing themselves, they need to be competent in order to stand trial. This is different than an insanity defense. Competency refers to the defendant’s mental state at trial. They need to be competent enough to understand the nature of the proceedings against them and meaningfully assist in their own defense.

In a case heard by the Florida Third District Court of Appeal, the defendant represented himself at trial after dismissing two different attorneys. Before the trial began, the defendant was determined to be incompetent to stand trial. However, after a period of hospitalization without medication, he was deemed competent enough to stand trial. At several points throughout the trial the court did a Faretta inquiry and each time the defendant was found competent to stand trial and represent himself.

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In order to stand trial, the defendant must be competent. The bar for competency is pretty low in a criminal proceeding, however. The defendant needs to be able to have enough rational understanding to be able to aid their lawyer in their own defense, and they must have a rational or factual understanding of the proceedings against him. Keep in mind that this is different from using an “insanity defense.” Competency has to do with the defendant’s mental state at trial, while an insanity defense relates to the defendant’s mental state during the commission of the crime. The law can be complicated, but your experienced Tampa criminal defense attorney can help you understand how the law applies in your case.

Stipulation to Competency

In a case recently heard by the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal, the court addressed when it’s allowable for the defendant’s attorney to stipulate to the defendant’s competency. In the case at issue, the defendant was originally charged with second degree murder and two counts of dealing in stolen property. The trial court appointed an expert to determine the defendant’s competency to stand trial. At the hearing, the judge stated that they had the competency report in the file and it said the defendant was competent. The defense attorney then offered to stipulate to competency. A stipulation means that they agreed to the determination. Thus, the court found the defendant competent.

When you work with a skilled Tampa criminal defense attorney there are several ways that they can help you after you have been charged with a crime. They can help defend you against the charges. They can also help you negotiate a plea bargain with the prosecutor. Another thing that they can do is to help with sentence mitigation if the defendant is found guilty. This case involves the latter.

Downward Departure

The defendant in this case is a woman with no prior criminal record before this prosecution. After working for a couple for eight years as the housekeeper and groundskeeper of their house in Florida, she was charged with burglary and trespassing. Her job duties involved taking care of the home while the couple was away, although she was never supposed to spend the night there. After many satisfactory years as an employee she began dating a man who had drug issues and was also a convicted felon. He allegedly pressured her to sleep at the house and stay there while the couple was away. He also allegedly stole property from the couple and the defendant herself, including checks. He testified at trial that the defendant was not involved with the taking of property.

The defendant petitioned the court for a downward departure in her sentence. The court granted this petition and she was sentenced to six months in the county jail, followed by fifteen months of community service and five years of probation. Without the downward departure she would have faced 21 months to 15 years in jail.

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Most of the time, when a defendant pleads guilty, they are unable to later take back their plea and decide to go to trial. However, there are some circumstances when Florida law will allow a defendant to withdraw a guilty plea that they have already given and allow the defendant to have a trial. One of those circumstances is when new evidence is discovered. However, in order to get a new trial on the basis of new evidence, the case must meet specific requirements. Your skilled Tampa criminal defense attorney can tell you whether your case meets these circumstances.

Trial Due to Newly Discovered Evidence

Typically, defendants will plead guilty only when they believe that they do not have much of a chance of being found not guilty when the case goes to trial. In other words, defendants make these decisions based in large part on the evidence that the state has against them. So when new exculpatory evidence arises, some defendants may want to take back their guilty plea and go to trial. Florida has developed case law that explains in what circumstances the court will allow defendants to do this.

Courts in the United States will look very closely at allegations of prejudice during a trial. In the courtroom, prejudice does not always mean the same things that it means outside of the courtroom. Generally, prejudice involves prejudging someone based on stereotypes or preconceived notions about who they are, often based on race, gender, etc. In the courtroom context, prejudice involves the jury believing that someone is guilty based on something other than the evidence. Prosecutors, as representatives of the state, have a special interest and responsibility toward a just outcome. Thus, they may be held to a higher standard. Judges may look at the behavior of the prosecutor to analyze it for potential misconduct and/or whether it was prejudicial.

Prosecutorial Misconduct

This case was heard by the Florida Second Circuit Court of Appeal. In his initial trial, the defendant was charged with robbery with a deadly weapon. The jury found him guilty of that charge. On appeal, the defendant asserted a number of different claims. One of the claims that the defendant brought on appeal was an allegation of prosecutorial misconduct. Specifically, the defendant argued that it was error for the court to have allowed the prosecutor to suggest that the victim changed his story between the robbery and the trial due to actions by the defense counsel.

One of the things that makes the law so complicated is that words need to be specifically defined. For example, the word “possession.” Outside of the legal context, it’s usually clear when someone is in possession of something and when they are not. However, when jail time and other serious penalties are on the line, the law needs to specifically define all the language that makes up the elements of a crime.

How Are the Definitions Developed?

When the Florida state legislature passes a new law, usually included in the law is a section where specific words are defined. Of course the definition cannot possibly contemplate all the situations that may come up. That is where case law comes into play. Throughout time as the courts handle each individual case, their decisions clarify what counts as (in this case) possession and what doesn’t. Over time more and more situations are clarified and that’s how the definition is developed. One of the important things that your skilled Florida drug crimes criminal defense attorney can do for you is to use the case law to argue that your actions do not fit the specific definition of the crime.

That is what happened here. After a shootout between cars leaving a gas station, police found a cup filled with marijuana. The cup was lying on the ground next to the fence that marked the property line of the gas station. The police also found cocaine in one of the cars involved in the shootout, along with the defendant who was bleeding from a gunshot wound. The defendant was arrested for drug crimes related to both the cocaine and marijuana.

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Just because you are charged with a crime does not mean that you will be convicted. Many times the police, District Attorney, or other people involved in your case will make a mistake. Luckily, if you have a knowledgeable Tampa criminal defense attorney on your side they can advocate for you both before and during the court process. In this case, a man was charged with “possession of a concealed weapon by a convicted felon.” However, the appeals court in this case later overturned this conviction and sent it back to the lower court for a new trial.

Definition of Firearm

The defendant initially tried to argue that he should not be charged with this crime because it was a firearm and thus not a “weapon.” Therefore, he argued, if it is not a weapon it cannot be a “concealed weapon.” This argument has been successful in the second circuit, but this court – the Florida First District Court of Appeal – did not agree. They noted that Florida’s statute does define weapon as including guns.

“Possession vs. Carrying”

The defendant was successful on his other argument though. He noted that in his initial trial the jury was instructed to consider whether the defendant was guilty of “possession of a concealed weapon by a convicted felon.” However, this crime does not exist. The actual language that the court should have used is “carrying a concealed weapon by a felon.” This case revolves around the distinction between “carrying” and “possession.” Continue reading

In order for a defendant to be able to stand trial, they need to be competent. Competency has many definitions, but for the purposes of Florida criminal law it is specifically defined in the statute. There is also a body of case law that has developed around competency and when a competency hearing is needed. If you are charged with a crime, your skilled Florida criminal defense attorney will help to make sure the state adequately proves your competency to stand trial.

Competency Definition

Defendants need to be competent to stand trial. Generally, competency requires that a defendant be able to understand the purpose and nature of the charges and legal proceedings against them. Defendants also need to be able to assist their counsel with their defense. Generally, the defendant needs to be aware that they are facing potential jail time or other consequences and that the state is trying to prove a case against them. A defendant must also be able to understand that their attorney is there to help them defend themselves against the charges. They must also have some understanding of the expectations for behavior in court, such as not yelling at the judge. Just having mental illness is not nearly enough to be found incompetent to stand trial; the defendant needs to have no meaningful understanding of what is happening.

In the United States, the police are not just able to search anyone at any time. The Constitution – specifically the Fourth Amendment – guarantees that individuals are free from illegal search and seizure. If you are searched illegally, there is not usually anything you can do about it in that moment. However, if evidence of illegal activity is found during the search, and that evidence is later used to convict someone of a crime, the conviction may be vacated. That is what happened in this case, heard by the Florida Fifth District Court of Appeal. The laws around what is an illegal seizure and illegal search are very fact specific. Therefore, if you have questions you should talk to a knowledgeable Florida criminal defense attorney familiar with Florida laws and they can help you to figure out whether a search was permissible in your specific circumstances.

Terry Stops

A 1968 case called Terry established the test for what is legal when it comes to “stop and frisk” searches. The test has two prongs. First, for the search to be permissible the police need to have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity “afoot.” The police need to be able to articulate what makes them suspicious of the behavior; it can’t just be based on a vague feeling or hunch. They don’t need to witness actual criminal behavior, but there needs to be something that they can define as relatable to potential criminal activity.