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Plea agreements can be useful tools for anyone facing criminal charges in Florida. These deals allow you to resolve criminal charges without at least some of the time, expense, and stress that come with a full-blown trial. They may also give a criminal defendant the leverage to reduce the punishment that comes with a conviction. It is important to remember, however, that these deals are binding legal agreements that you probably can’t go back and change later down the road. A recent case out of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida is a good example of that point.

Prison CellsDefendant was charged with introduction into interstate commerce of misbranded drugs, a federal crime, stemming from his alleged involvement in a synthetic marijuana business. According to prosecutors, the products “were manufactured by applying chemicals (synthetic cannabinoids) to plant material to create a product which users would smoke for a ‘high.’” The products were intended to be smoked, the prosecutors said, but they were not properly labeled. The prosecutors said the packaging indicated that the products were “not for human consumption” and that they included potpourri and incense. The packaging didn’t correctly identify the synthetic marijuana and didn’t include adequate directions for using the drug, according to prosecutors.

Defendant eventually entered into a plea agreement. As part of the deal, he agreed to waive his right to appeal the sentence eventually handed down by a judge. He nevertheless filed a motion to vacate the sentence after it was handed down. Defendant argued that the trial judge wrongly concluded that the fraud involved $1.9 million in business from the synthetic drugs. He said the amount was actually less than that because he was involved in the business for 10 months rather than 17 months.

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Getting behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated is a mistake that can have wide-ranging consequences. In addition to putting yourself and others at risk of an accident, you also face criminal prosecution for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. A conviction can mean steep fines and even jail time. A person busted for DUI in Florida also may be looking at the loss of his or her driving privileges. State law provides for a five-year revocation of a person’s driver’s license if he or she is convicted of DUI twice within a five-year period. A recent case out of Florida’s First District Court of Appeal shows just how seriously courts take that punishment.

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The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles initiated proceedings to revoke a defendant’s driver’s license after he was convicted of a second DUI. He was arrested twice in an eight-day span in October 2013 and pleaded guilty in both cases. He was convicted on both charges in November 2013. He later challenged the revocation of his license, arguing that a Florida law allowing for license revocation in the event of multiple DUI convictions didn’t apply to him.

The Florida law provides for license revocation in the event of “a second conviction for an offense that occurs within a period of 5 years after the date of a prior conviction for a violation.” Since the defendant was convicted for both DUIs during the same criminal proceeding on one, single day, he argued that his second conviction wasn’t “after” the date of the first conviction. A circuit court disagreed. The First District also sided with the FDHSMV.

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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.

A criminal record can make life complicated, including by making it tough to find or keep a job. Past criminal convictions can in some cases also come back to haunt you if you’re ever charged with a new crime. Although there are important limits on the use of prior criminal acts – old crimes can’t generally be used to prove that you committed new crimes – there are also some exceptions. That includes when a criminal defendant testifies on his own behalf at trial. Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal recently explained how criminal records can be used to try to impeach the testimony of a defendant in a Florida criminal case.

police handcuffsA defendant was charged with aggravated assault on a pregnant person. When he took the witness stand in his own defense at trial, prosecutors attempted to discredit him by introducing evidence of three previous convictions for burglary of a dwelling, grand theft, and petit theft. The prosecutor asked him if he had been previously convicted of a felony, and he answered that he had been convicted twice. He also responded to a separate question that he had two convictions for crimes involving dishonesty.

The court said the defendant’s answers were accurate. The burglary and grand theft convictions were for felony offenses. The grand theft and petit theft convictions were for crimes involving dishonesty. But after the defendant was convicted on the aggravated assault charge, he appealed the decision. He said the prosecutors asked the questions in a way that wrongly made it seem to the jury like he was lying about his previous convictions. The Fifth District disagreed.

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Florida law includes a number of protections for minor children. That includes a broadly worded statute that makes it a crime to interfere with the custody of a minor. As Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal recently explained, that statute may apply to a wide range of behavior.

steel cuffsA defendant was charged with interfering with the custody of a minor, stemming from an incident involving a 14-year-old boy. The boy was riding his bike in his neighborhood when he noticed that the defendant was following him in a car, according to the court. He drove up next to the boy and asked to use his phone, which the boy was holding in his hand.

The defendant continued to follow the boy in the car, including when he turned on to a different street. He pulled closely next to the boy, forcing him to the edge of the street. When the boy stopped and got off his bike, he again asked to use his phone. He said he needed to call a friend and offered to allow the boy to hold some cash while he used the phone. “You can get in and hold the money,” he allegedly told the boy. The defendant eventually drove off when the boy declined. He was later convicted and sentenced to five years of probation.

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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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