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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.

black gun

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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One of the most important things that anyone charged with a Florida theft crime should know is that the burden is at all times on prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed the crime. That means they have to prove more than just a hunch, and they have to do more than show that you probably committed the crime. As the state’s Second District Court of Appeals recently explained, that means in auto theft cases that prosecutors have to show that the car in which the person charged was caught is the car that was stolen.

judge's gavelOne afternoon in May 2016, a man drove a silver Dodge Dart to his aunt’s house in Tampa. He came to retrieve some paperwork from his cousin. He left keys in the car – a rental – along with his cell phone, his wallet, and a bag of clothes. He also left the car windows down. The car was gone when he returned a few minutes later. He contacted police but wasn’t able to remember the vehicle’s license plate number.

The following night, a Tampa police officer observed a silver Dodge Dart roll through a stop sign, make a quick lane change, and make several quick turns before running another couple of stop signs. The three people inside the car – two men and one woman – jumped out and started running away when the officer approached. The officer eventually apprehended the woman, identified in court documents as “VG.” She was arrested and charged with grand theft auto and burglary, among other charges.

State and federal criminal laws often overlap and intertwine, particularly when it comes to drugs and guns. Law enforcement of every stripe takes these cases very seriously, but federal laws tend to be significantly harsher. In a recent Central Florida gun crime case, a federal district court upheld the U.S. government’s right under the Constitution to impose those penalties, as long as the feds can prove some very minimal connection to interstate commerce.

Gun and MoneyThe defendant was arrested and charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, a federal crime. He was eventually sentenced to five years in jail, a sentence that was increased because he had previously been convicted of drug trafficking. He later appealed the sentence, arguing that the feds didn’t have the authority to charge him under the circumstances. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit disagreed.

The Court explained that the federal law banning felons from having guns stems from the federal government’s power under the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause. That clause directly authorizes the feds “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” It has been read broadly to give the government wide enforcement authority over anything that has some connection to commerce between states.

If a police officer wants to stop you on the street, he or she has to have a reasonable suspicion to believe that you have committed or are committing a crime. A recent case out of Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals involving an alleged Tampa burglary crime is a good example of just how seriously judges take that requirement.

police handcuffsThe case stemmed from an incident on the University of South Florida campus. A man testified that he was driving near the campus when he noticed two people fighting. He said he observed a young man in a white tank top and jeans on a bicycle trying to get away from a young woman pulling on his tank top and yelling “he stole my phone.” The man on the bike swung his arms at the woman and was able to shake her off and get away.

A USF police officer later responded to the scene and said she noticed three suspects on bikes in the area. She said one of the suspects was wearing a white tank top and shorts. The officer flashed her vehicle’s police lights and yelled “stop, police,” but the man in the tank top fled the scene. A Tampa police officer later apprehended a person whom the court called “B.M.” in a shed in a residential backyard. The USF officer identified B.M. as the person who had fled. He was charged with resisting an officer and burglary. The officers did not recover the missing phone. B.M. was eventually convicted on both charges and sentenced to juvenile probation.

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BurglaryAt trial, the prosecution is required to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, all of the elements of the crime charged against the defendant. A Fourth District Court of Appeals decision, J.S., a Child v. State of Florida, analyzed whether the prosecution had met its burden of proof in convicting a juvenile of a Florida assault crime.

In the early morning hours, the victim went outside to investigate a noise. He saw one of the trucks that was part of his auto-repair business being touched by the defendant. As the victim approached the truck, he saw a second person at another vehicle. The burglar approached, and the victim pulled out his concealed handgun, which scared off one of the burglars. He approached the defendant, who was lying on the ground and appeared to be moving his hand toward something. The victim removed what appeared to be a pellet gun from the defendant’s waist. He held the defendant on the ground at gun point until the police arrived.

The defendant was charged with burglary with assault or battery while armed. The trial court found the defendant delinquent on the charge. The juvenile defendant appealed and argued that the conviction of burglary of conveyance with assault while armed should be reversed.

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Dollar BillsFlorida’s Stand Your Ground law gives criminal defendants immunity against prosecution if they meet the following three elements:  the use of deadly force was (i) reasonable because deadly force was necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to the defendant or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony; (ii) used while the defendant was not engaged in a criminal activity; and (iii) used in a place where the defendant had a right to be. A recent Florida gun crime case, decided on November 15, 2017, considered the second element, whether the defendant was engaged in a criminal activity at the time the alleged self-defense occurred.

The defendant testified at an evidentiary motion to dismiss the second-degree murder charges against him that on the day of the shooting, he took a few hundred dollars out of his pocket when the eventual victim told him that she shouldn’t walk around with that amount of cash because of the reputation of the neighborhood. The defendant informed the eventual victim that he had “protection.” The defendant then continued talking with his friends. The defendant was then attacked from behind and hit on the left side of his face and knocked up against a car. The eventual victim reached for the defendant’s side and made contact with the defendant’s gun. The defendant then grabbed his gun and pulled the trigger. The victim did not fall to the ground. They both ran in different directions, although the victim eventually died of his gunshot wounds.

The defendant presented evidence at a pre-trial hearing that corroborated his account of the event. The trial court ruled that as a result, the defendant was entitled to immunity and dismissed the second-degree murder charge against the defendant. The State appealed because the court did not discuss in the written order whether the defendant was engaged in a criminal activity at the time of the shooting, even though both the prosecutor and defense counsel argued this issue at the hearing.

HandcuffsIn what is described as an emerging trend by the Tampa Bay Times, lawmakers are starting to either repeal mandatory minimum sentences or pass “safety valve” laws. The latter provides judges with more discretion in imposing a variety of punishments in minor drug cases, if certain conditions are met. These new laws could change the way that courts deal with Florida drug crimes, or at least change the length of jail time imposed at sentencing.

The proposed law is a Senate bill brought forth by a pair of Florida legislators. SB 694 permits a court to sentence a drug offender to a sentence less than a mandatory minimum sentence if the following conditions are met:  (i) the person did not engage in a criminal enterprise as defined in Florida Statutes Section 893.20(1) (a continuing criminal enterprise); (ii) the person did not use or threaten violence or use a weapon during the commission of the crime; and (iii) the person did not cause a death or serious bodily injury.

The Florida House of Representatives version is very similar to the one proposed in the Senate but with a few key differences. The court is required to at least impose a sentence of imprisonment that is “no less than one-third of the sentence prescribed” by the mandatory minimum sentencing statute. Separately, the drug offender cannot have certain prior convictions, including a crime of violence as defined in Florida Statutes Section 784.046(1)(a).

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