In criminal trials, the jury is asked to determine the guilt or innocence of the defendant. Jury instructions help the jurors make their decision within the framework of existing laws, and the criminal defendant is entitled to have the jury instructed in his or her theory of defense, assuming there is evidence to support this theory. A failure to properly instruct the jury may constitute a reversible error in a Florida theft crime case.The defendant and the alleged victim were neighbors in a four-unit duplex, where they shared a backyard area. One night, their dogs fought in the shared backyard, which led to a fight between the defendant and his neighbor. Although there was differing testimony as to what actually occurred, the defendant argued that his neighbor hit him, so he hit the neighbor in self-defense. The fight started in the neighbor’s doorway, and the defendant said that in the course of the fight, he somehow ended up inside the neighbor’s apartment. The defendant was charged with burglary and misdemeanor battery as a result of the altercation. During the jury charge conference, the defendant’s attorney requested that the jury receive a special instruction that self-defense was an available defense to the burglary charge, just as it was a defense to the battery charge. The trial court declined to give this instruction, and following his conviction, the defendant appealed the trial court’s ruling.
The appeals court considered whether the trial court committed a reversible error by ruling that self-defense was not an available defense for the burglary charge. The appeals court noted that the facts of the case suggested that the charges of battery and burglary were inextricably linked and almost functioned as a single charge. In other words, the defendant’s theory was that the burglary and the battery were part of the same encounter with his neighbor. His self-defense claim started outside the neighbor’s apartment and continued unabated when the fighting traveled into the neighbor’s apartment, according to court documents.
The appeals court concluded that the prosecution failed to meet its burden in showing that its failure to properly instruct the jury on self-defense for the burglary was a harmless error. The appeals court reversed and remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to instruct the jury as to self-defense on the battery and burglary charges, as the defendant had requested.