Criminal Defense, InfoFriday, Legal Blog, Legislative Update, Sentencing

Florida Death Penalty – House Bill 139

An important piece of Death Penalty legislation is being considered in Florida: House Bill 139.

This proposed legislation would require a unanimous jury vote to recommend a death sentence. Currently, a jury can recommend the death penalty in Florida by a vote of 7-5 (it is important to note that the Judge is the ultimate decision-maker who can choose to override the jury’s recommendation). The proposal would also require the judge to instruct jury that, in order for jury to recommend to court that death penalty be imposed, the jury must find that sufficient aggravating circumstances exist which outweigh any mitigating circumstances; that each aggravating circumstance must be proven beyond reasonable doubt by unanimous vote; and that the judge shall provide a special verdict form for each aggravating circumstance.

It would seem that this legislation is a long time coming. Of the 32 States that impose death penalty sentences, Florida is only 1 of 2 states in the union that does not require a unanimous decision (Alabama requires a 10-2 supermajority). Compare that to the fact that a unanimous jury verdict is required to convict a defendant of a misdemeanor offense, which carries with it a max punishment of only up to one year in jail. An interesting contradiction, to say the least.

For ease of reference, the specific language of the bill proposes:

Effective for an offense committed on or after July 1, 2015, an advisory sentence of death may be made only by a unanimous recommendation of the jury. The court shall instruct the jury that, in order for the jury to recommend to the court that the death penalty be imposed, the jury must find that sufficient aggravating circumstances exist which outweigh any mitigating circumstances found to exist. The court shall further instruct the jury that each aggravating circumstance used to support the jury’s recommendation of death must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and be made by a unanimous vote. The court shall provide a special verdict form for each aggravating circumstance found.

The full text of the proposed bill can be found here: http://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2015/0139/BillText/Filed/PDF

Casey Reiter is an associate attorney at Stuart R. Manoff & Associates, P.A. in West Palm Beach, Florida, practicing in the areas of Criminal Defense and Family law.

Criminal Defense, Legal Blog, Recent News, Theft

Fort Lauderdale Bike Registration Laws

This article provides interesting insight on tickets in Fort Lauderdale stemming from bike registration laws: Fort Lauderdale Cops Are Still Arresting Dozens for Biking While Black

The article discusses that in 2003, the City of Fort Lauderdale passed an ordinance requiring residents to register their bicycles with the city for the charge of 1$ in an effort to reduce bicycle thefts (the fee was later dropped altogether):

“City commissioners said it worked, and bike thefts decreased. Police also found that stopping bikers to check whether their bikes were registered turned out to be an effective way of finding drug dealers and house burglars. It gave cops probable cause to stop people, check their identification, and check for outstanding arrest warrants.”

However, the data seems to suggest that the police may have used the ordinance as a pretext for stopping people in “primarily African-American neighborhoods”:

According to data provided by the [Broward] Public Defender’s Office, between December 2013 and September 2014, the Fort Lauderdale PD issued only 45 tickets for unregistered bikes. Yet 42 of the violators were black — 93 percent of the total. Only one ticket was issued east of Federal Highway.

The full article can be found here:  Fort Lauderdale Cops Are Still Arresting Dozens for Biking While Black

Casey Reiter is an associate attorney at Stuart R. Manoff & Associates, P.A. in West Palm Beach, Florida, practicing in the areas of Criminal Defense and Family law.

Criminal Defense, Legal Blog, Recent News

Supreme Court: Cops don’t have to know the law

This week, the Supreme Court of the United States issued an opinion that basically confirms police officers do not have to know the law. Yes, you read that right.

In HEIEN v. NORTH CAROLINA, the driver was pulled over in North Carolina for having a busted tail light. The officer “mistakenly” believed that the law requires two working brake lights. However, in North Carolina, the law does NOT require a driver to have two working brake lights. After the officer pulled the vehicle over (even though there was NO traffic infraction to give the officer the authority to stop the car), he noticed that the driver and passenger seemed “very stiff and nervous” (as if that were bizarre behavior for a person who is being stopped by the police for no reason?). The officer then asked the driver and passenger (Heien) for permission to search the vehicle, which ultimately revealed a sandwich bag filled with cocaine.

The US Supreme Court ruled that because the officer’s mistake of law was reasonable, there was “reasonable suspicion” justifying the stop under the Fourth Amendment.

In justifying the decision, Chief Justice Roberts cited what he claims to be “precedent” finding that a reasonable mistake of fact, such as an officer who stops a motorist for driving in a high-occupancy lane only to discover two children sleeping in the back seat, can justify a search or seizure and not violate the Fourth Amendment. Roberts then goes on to conclude that a “mistake of law” is as justifiable as a “mistake of fact,” and that there was essentially no violation of anyone’s rights in either scenario.

How can that be? And what is next? It seems that this decision is setting terrible precedent that will allow officers to do whatever they want and claim later that they “didn’t know they couldn’t do that.” Arrest first, ask questions later? Forget about the far-reaching effects; let’s talk about the immediate issue: if a traffic cop’s daily job function is to stop drivers for traffic offenses (such as speeding, broken tail lights, running stop signs, etc.), shouldn’t the traffic cop be required to actually know the laws entailed? Or are we now just handing out patrol cars and badges to everyone and waiting to see what happens?

A local law student, Ana Roditi, hit the nail on the head when interviewed about the case when she stated “It’s crazy to think that ignorance of the law is no excuse, unless you’re a cop – then it’s a reasonable excuse!”

Defendants cannot claim ignorance of the law as a defense to a criminal charge. But apparently, police officers can use it as an excuse to arrest anyone they feel like.

It’s an unfortunate day for civilian rights – instead of holding law enforcement to a higher standard of actually knowing the laws they are trying to enforce, the Supreme Court is now putting the burden on civilians.

The full opinion can be found here.

Casey Reiter is an associate attorney at Stuart R. Manoff & Associates, P.A. in West Palm Beach, Florida, practicing in the areas of Criminal Defense and Family law.

Criminal Defense, Drug Charge, Legal Blog, Recent News

Florida Supreme Court Reverses Drug Conviction

On Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court held that the trial court should have suppressed evidence obtained by Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO) when officers went beyond the scope of a search warrant by tracking the real-time movements of a defendant’s cell phone.

BSO had obtained a search warrant for the cellphone of Sean Alvin Tracey. The warrant permitted BSO to obtain phone numbers sent or received by Tracey’s phone. However, the warrant did not permit BSO to track the phone’s location. BSO’s tracking of the real-time movements of Tracey’s phone, based on pings from cell towers, led to polcie surveillance of Tracey, and the ultimate confiscation of a kilo of cocaine and $23,000 in cash.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the evidence obtained from the cell tower tracking of Tracey’s phone should have been suppressed. The case was remanded to the trial court, which means that the prosecution will either have to go forward without the evidence, or dismiss the case.

The Supreme Court’s decision, authored by Chief Justice Labarga, states:

“We conclude that Tracey had a subjective expectation of privacy in the location signals transmitted solely to enable the private and personal use of his cell hone, even on public roads, and that he did not voluntarily convey that information to the service provider for any purpose other than to enable use of his cell phone for its intended purpose.”

Essentially, it was the Court’s decision that the scope of a warrant shouldn’t be expanded to include the location of a person just because that person turned on his or her cell phone:

“… Because cell phones are indispensable to so many people and are normally carried on one’s person, cell phone tracking can easily invade the right to privacy in one’s home or other private areas, a matter that the government cannot always anticipate and one which, when it occurs, is clearly a Fourth Amendment violation. The Supreme Court noted in Riley that “modern cell phones . . . are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of the human anatomy. A smart phone of the sort taken from Riley was unheard of ten years ago; a significant majority of American adults now own such phones.” . . . This real risk of “inadvertent” violation of Fourth Amendment rights is not a risk worth imposing on the citizenry when it is not an insurmountable task for the government to obtain a warrant based on probable cause when such tracking is truly justified.”

The full decision can be found on the Florida Supreme Court’s website here: Tracey v. State

Criminal Defense, Legal Blog

What Happens After A Person Is Arrested in Florida?

This educational guide provides a general summary of the basic legal process in a Florida criminal matter, and follows closely along with the infographic below.

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Casey Reiter is an associate attorney at Stuart R. Manoff & Associates, P.A. in West Palm Beach, Florida, practicing in the areas of Criminal Defense and Marital Law.