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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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The right to an attorney is a crucial part of the American criminal justice system. The U.S. Supreme Court, in the groundbreaking Miranda case, made clear that criminal suspects have the right not to talk to cops without a lawyer by their side. As Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal recently explained, police officers can’t try to get a person to change their mind once the person has invoked his or her Miranda rights.

gun and moneyA defendant was charged with three counts of armed robbery and one count of assault while he was already in jail on unrelated crimes. An investigating officer approached him, looking for information about an armed robbery in Broward County. Two weeks later, the defendant and another man were transferred to the Broward Country Sheriff’s Office for questioning as suspects in the armed robbery. An officer tried to go over a form with the defendant, waiving his Miranda rights, when the defendant asked:  “They sending me a lawyer?” The officer said the defendant could stop the interview at any time. He also showed him photos of other suspects in the case. “They’re talking,” the officer said. “First one talks, deals.”

The defendant was left in the interrogation room for several hours. He was forced to urinate in the room after asking unsuccessfully to use the bathroom. When a police officer brought the defendant food, he told him:  “I know you asked for your attorney; I’m not going to talk to you, but I’m going to let you know that you are being charged with armed robbery.” When the defendant later asked if he was in fact being charged with the crime, the officer said repeatedly “You want to talk to me?” until the defendant nodded his head. The officer went over the Miranda form with the defendant, during which he said he agreed to talk to the officer but also said “yeah” when asked whether he had previously requested an attorney. “You have. But you still want to make a statement with me, right?” the detective said. The defendant responded:  “Yeah.” The defendant eventually admitted to participating in the robbery. He was convicted on all four counts.

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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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