Articles Posted in Criminal Procedure

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In Florida, the Stand Your Ground law received a lot of attention over the years, particularly in relation to the Trayvon Martin case. The Florida Stand Your Ground law is not a particularly radical law. It is essentially a self defense law that allows a person to use reasonable force, including deadly force, in response to an imminent threat of similar harm.  In other words, if a person reasonably believes someone is about to injure or kill him/her, or another person, that person can use a similar level of force to prevent that from happening. There may be issues regarding whether the other person’s threat was truly imminent and whether the suspect used a commensurate level of force, but it is generally a self defense law. What makes the Florida Stand Your Ground law somewhat exceptional is the procedural aspect of it. Rather than having to assert the Stand Your Ground defense at a trial and hope the jury sides with the defendant, which is always questionable, a defendant can file a motion with the judge that requires a hearing prior to the trial. Once the defendant makes an initial case of self defense, state has the burden of proving the defendant did not have a valid basis to use force or that the Stand Your Ground law does not apply for legal reasons, and if the state fails to do so, the judge should rule in the defendant’s favor and the case is over. A jury would never hear the case. This is an immunity rather than a defense in that if the defendant’s motion is successful, the defendant is immune from further prosecution for the offense.

In a recent case near Jacksonville, Florida, an older defendant lived at home with his adult niece. He was a security guard with no prior criminal record. He had a concealed carry permit and firearms training. One evening, someone knocked on his door, his niece answered, and some guy pulled her out of the house. The niece resisted and called for the defendant to help her. Two other men were there and helped the first man pull the niece away. The defendant grabbed his guy and ran outside. He fired a warning shot into the air. The three men shot back, and a gunfight ensued. The defendant and his niece were hit along with one of the other men.

It turns out, these three men were police officers, although they apparently never announced that fact to the niece or defendant. They went to the house in an undercover capacity to investigate the niece’s alleged prostitution offenses. They arrived in plain clothes and an unmarked vehicle and posed as customers seeking a prostitute. After the incident, the defendant was arrested and charged with three counts of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer.

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In Florida, the Constitution protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures from law enforcement. This means the police cannot just stop, detain or search a person based on speculative reasons or for no reason at all. Depending on the circumstances and the nature of the intrusion into a person’s privacy, the police must have some level of specific proof that a person is, or may become, involved in criminal activity. For an initial detention where the police stop a person to briefly investigate possible criminal activity, the police must have reasonable suspicion of a danger or criminal activity. This suspicion must be based on specific facts, not a hunch.

In a recent case just south of Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant was at a private church function uninvited and wearing a bulletproof vest. The police were called, and when they arrived, the defendant walked away. The police officers asked the defendant some questions and then detained him to investigate further. As the police were detaining and questioning the defendant, they noticed a bulge in his pocket. They patted the defendant down and found a gun. The defendant was arrested.

The criminal defense lawyer argued that the police unlawfully detained the defendant because there was no reasonable basis to believe that he had committed, or was about to commit, a crime. It is not illegal to wear a bulletproof vest in public, and the defendant did not give any indication that he was involved in criminal activity.

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When a defendant in Florida pleads guilty or no contest to a crime, or goes to trial and is convicted by a jury, the next step is for the judge to sentence that defendant. Most sentences for crimes other than minor misdemeanors involve incarceration, probation or both. When a defendant is placed on probation, the judge will normally require the defendant to complete certain conditions while on probation, such as community service, paying restitution, some type of treatment, etc. The judge also has the authority to require more unorthodox conditions when the facts of the case make such requirements appropriate.

For instance, in a recent sexual battery case near Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant was placed on probation for 10 years, and one of the conditions prohibited the defendant from accessing the internet except for work and shopping, but no access to social media sites in any case. The criminal defense lawyer objected to that condition and ultimately appealed the sentence to the appellate court. The criminal defense attorney argued that the condition forbidding internet use violated the defendant’s First Amendment rights. The legal analysis for such a First Amendment issue looks at whether the judge’s condition is narrowly tailored to protect a compelling government interest. In other words, the state or the judge can infringe upon a person’s First Amendment rights, but the particular condition that does so must be designed to protect a significant interest and it must not be overbroad in doing so. The criminal defense lawyer conceded that protecting children from a convicted sex offender was certainly a compelling interest. However, the criminal defense attorney argued that such a broad internet restriction was not narrowly tailored to protect that interest.

The criminal defense lawyer cited a United States Supreme Court case which held that a North Carolina statute was unconstitutional as it created a felony crime for any sex offender to access certain websites, including general social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. The Florida appellate court distinguished that case because the North Carolina case involved a statute that limited sex offenders from accessing the internet even after their sentences were completed. So, even after they had successfully completed probation, those sex offenders were still restricted from accessing the internet and risked committing a new felony crime for a violation. That statute did violate the First Amendment as it was prospective and indefinite.

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Over the last several years, there has been a lot of litigation over whether, how and to what extend the police and prosecutors can access a person’s cell phone data. As everyone is aware, cell phones can contain a wealth of information about a person, his/her activities and the people with whom he/she associates. This can provide the state with a lot of incriminating information that can be used to successfully prosecute defendant in a wide variety of cases. But because cell phones contain so much private information, courts in Florida have recognized a right of privacy with cell phone information such that the police cannot normally just take a person’s cell phone and search it for whatever they want.

Let’s say the state did obtain a defendant’s cell phone or similar electronic device. Can the state force the defendant to provide the passcode to the state so they can access and search it?

In a recent robbery case near Jacksonville, Florida, the police seized a passcode protected Iphone from the defendant when he was arrested. The state later filed a motion to compel the passcode from the defendant. In the motion, the state said it was looking for all communication information and photographs for a seven day period prior to the arrest. The motion did not reference any specific information the state believed was on the phone that was relevant to the case. The state just believed the defendant communicated with his co-defendant prior to the robbery and was looking for evidence of that. The criminal defense attorney objected based on the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The Fifth Amendment forbids the government from compelling testimonial communications or acts that might incriminate a suspect or defendant. Whether something is testimonial depends on whether the request requires the person to use the contents of his own mind to communicate some statement of fact. This court determine that disclosing a passcode known in the defendant’s mind would be a testimonial act.

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In Florida and other states, a person has a right to privacy in his home, automobile, personal effects and other property. This means that the police cannot just search a person or his/her property based on suspicion or because they feel like it. However, the rules are different for people on probation.  If a person is arrested and charged with a crime, pleads guilty or is convicted at trial and is then put on probation, the state has much greater access to that person and his/her property than a regular person.

In a case just south of Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant was on probation for attempted sexual battery on a child. He was put on probation after he served time in prison. While on probation, he was required to fulfill certain conditions, and he had a probation officer who supervised him. While on probation, his probation officer came into his home and downloaded his cell phone data without a search warrant or consent.

Obviously, a police officer or anyone from the state cannot enter a person’s home and/or search his cell phone without a search warrant or specific consent under normal circumstances. However, this involved a person on probation for a serious crime.  Upon searching his phone, the probation officer found information that indicated the defendant had violated his probation. A warrant was issued for the violation of probation.

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In Florida, the state constitution provides that medical records are private and protected from discovery by the state. In order to obtain a defendant’s medical records, the state must prove that the records are relevant to the case. The state is not permitted to subpoena a defendant’s medical records at its own discretion.

In a case near Jacksonville, Florida, there was a motor vehicle crash, and the driver of the vehicle that caused the crash fled the scene. The police developed evidence that the defendant was the driver who caused the crash and fled the scene. They determined he had a suspended license. He was charged with felonies for hit and run and driving with a suspended license and causing a serious injury. The state learned that the defendant went to the hospital after the crash. The state tried to get the defendant’s medical records from the hospital to determine if he was impaired at the time of the crash. Toxicology records would likely indicate whether the defendant had alcohol or drugs in his system.

The criminal defense lawyer objected to the request for the defendant’s medical records arguing that medical records are private under the Florida constitution, and they were irrelevant to the pending charges as the defendant was not charged with DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs). Initially, the court ruled that the state could get the defendant’s medical records because they could be used to impeach the defendant. The criminal defense attorney appealed and won. The appellate court ruled that to overcome the right to privacy, the state must prove the medical records are relevant to an ongoing investigation or case. The state must show a nexus between the records and a material issue in the case. Because the state did not have evidence of a DUI, and the defendant was not charged with DUI, his medical records were not relevant to the case and could not be subpoenaed by the state.

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In the digital age, when so many people keep cell phones, Ipads, fitness trackers and other electronic devices with them at all times, the courts are grappling with issues of privacy when law enforcement seeks to obtain information about people during their investigations.  We have discussed some of these issues such as whether a police officer can look through a suspect’s phone for incriminating information upon an arrest. The police can normally search a person and check their belongings upon an arrest to make sure there are no weapons, officer safety issues or evidence if there is reason to believe evidence might be present.  A phone or Ipad-like device can contain all sorts of private information and evidence.  However, courts have generally ruled that the police need a search warrant to search a person’s phone even if it is seized pursuant to a lawful arrest.

Another type of data that is stored in electronic devices (or stored with third party entities after being collected by the devices) is location information.  Obviously, a suspect’s location can be critical information if police are investigating an incident like a shooting, robbery or burglary, and they are trying to determine if a suspect was in the area at the time.  The question that arose in this case was whether the police can contact a person’s cell phone provider and request the data they maintain showing customers’ locations.  Or, do the police have to get a search warrant to request that information? Some courts across the country and in Florida have allowed law enforcement to obtain this information without a warrant based on the idea that customers do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their location information and/or they do not have standing to object to this information being released by some third party entity.

What makes this data different from information that is kept on one’s phone is that it is automatically generated when a person has a cell phone and it is stored by a third party rather than on one’s phone.  However, the United States Supreme Court recently ruled that the police do have to get a search warrant before requesting this location data from cell phone providers. They found people do have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their location information.

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In a criminal case just south of Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant was arrested for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon after an employee at a restaurant called the police and reported that he appeared to have a gun in his waistband. There was no indication the defendant pulled out a gun, was acting in a suspicious manner or used or held it in a threatening manner. When the police arrived, they saw a bulge in the defendant’s waistband but could not tell it was a gun. The police officer patted the defendant down and discovered the gun. Afterwards, they determined that the defendant was a convicted felon.

The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the gun because it was not a legal search. In order for the police to legally search a person, or just pat a person down for weapons, the police must, at a minimum, have reasonable suspicion that the person is involved in criminal activity. In order for the police to conduct a stop and frisk, the police must have reasonable suspicion that the person is armed and dangerous.

In this case, the police did not have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. It is not illegal to carry a gun in Florida.  Therefore, the fact that a person has a gun in public is not evidence of criminal activity.  It might be illegal for a person to carry a concealed weapon in public, but only if that person does not have a concealed firearms permit. When the police stopped and patted the defendant down, they did not know whether or not he had a concealed firearms permit. Therefore, they did not have evidence he was committing a crime even if they knew he had a gun concealed in his waistband.

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In our last blog post, we discussed the problems and dangers of government abuse that come with mandatory minimum prison sentences for various crimes.  In this blog post, we will review a recent report from the United States Sentencing Commission which discusses the effects of mandatory minimum prison sentences from a more statistical perspective. This report focuses on federal crimes and federal criminal penalties, but the mechanisms and effects of mandatory minimum prison sentences are similar in the state and federal criminal systems.

In the federal system, using or possessing a firearm while committing a violent offense or certain drug offenses carries significant penalties. In 2016, defendants who were convicted of these 924(c) crimes were sentenced to more than 12 years in prison, on average. Some defendants are subject to a 15 year mandatory minimum prison sentence if they qualify under the Armed Career Criminal Act. Such defendants received just more than 15 years in prison, on average, which suggests the prosecutors were not waiving (i.e. allowing a defendant to plead guilty to a different charge that did not carry the mandatory minimum penalty) these mandatory minimum penalties very often. Defendants facing multiple counts under 924(c) received more than 27 years or 36 years, on average, depending on the number of charges.

Mandatory minimum prison sentences are obviously very harsh. In the federal system, there are very few ways to get out of a mandatory minimum prison sentence if a defendant pleads guilty or is convicted at trial. One way, relevant in certain cases, is what is called the safety valve provision.  Eligibility for the safety valve provision requires a defendant to qualify for several factors.  One is related to the defendant’s criminal history. Any defendant who has a somewhat recent or serious criminal history is not likely to qualify for the safety valve provision.  In fact, even people with more than one recent criminal conviction for minor crimes such as petit theft, possession of marijuana, DUI, etc. are likely to be disqualified from safety valve eligibility.

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In criminal cases in state and federal courts, one major landmine in getting cases resolved and trying to get fair results is crimes that carry mandatory minimum prison sentences.  There are few greater injustices in the criminal system than the advent of the mandatory minimum prison sentence.  Additionally, they are the source of a tremendous amount of wasted money and abuse by some prosecutors. The idea behind adding mandatory minimum prison sentences is that legislators (the people who make the laws) do not trust judges (the people who sentence defendants according to the laws) to order proper sentences in what they consider the more serious cases.   Mandatory minimum sentences are designed to tie the hands of judges so they cannot sentence a defendant to less prison time than a certain amount provided in the law if the defendant has been convicted of the qualifying crime. The obvious problem with these laws is that every case and every defendant are different and judges are supposed to consider the specific circumstances of each defendant and each case when determining a proper sentence.  The judges, after sitting through a trial or hearing the testimony of witnesses and arguments of the lawyers at a sentencing hearing, are informed of those relevant factors prior to making a sentencing decision.  Legislators in Tallahassee or Washington D.C. have no idea about the facts of a particular case or the mitigating circumstances of a defendant. Yet, it is those uninformed legislators making the ultimate decisions as to a floor for a defendant’s sentence.

The other, less obvious problem with mandatory minimum sentences is that they essentially take the power away from the judge, who is an impartial figure in the process, and puts that power in the hands of a prosecutor. Charging people with crimes that come with mandatory minimum prison sentences gives the prosecutor significant leverage to force a guilty plea out of a defendant who is arguably innocent. Why? Because while the judges have no power to go under mandatory minimum sentences (with a few exceptions in federal court), the prosecutor can always waive the mandatory minimum sentence or amend the charge to a different charge that does not come with a mandatory minimum prison sentence to strong arm a defendant into a plea.

We see this happen in the case of aggravated assaults with a firearm in Florida. If a person points a firearm at another in a manner that causes fear of serious bodily injury or death, that person can be charged with aggravated assault.  Aggravated assault comes with a three year mandatory minimum prison sentence in Florida when a firearm is involved. The problem is these cases often have issues.  Did the defendant point the gun or just have a gun? Did the defendant point the gun at the alleged victim because the alleged victim was initially threatening the defendant? Was this a valid case of self defense?  Quite often, these are very gray areas that do not have simple answers. Such ambiguous factual and legal issues may be best decided by a jury. It may be a close call or maybe the witnesses need to be fully cross-examined at trial to see if the state can really meet its burden that the defendant committed a serious crime that deserves a minimum of three years in prison. The defendant has that constitutional right to explore those details with witnesses under oath.  But the mandatory minimum sentences often effectively eliminates that right for defendants.