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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.

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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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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.

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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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