How to Survive Your Criminal Case in Florida
(part 7 of a 9 part series)
By: Carlton “Duke” Fagan, Esq.
101 Century 21 Drive
Jacksonville, Florida 32216
(904) 733-1234 – Telephone
How Criminal Cases are Resolved
There are several possible resolutions, sometimes called “dispositions”, of a criminal case in Florida. The most common of these is a negotiated plea bargain. A plea bargain is a contractual agreement between the defendant and the State of Florida. The defendant agrees to enter either a Guilty plea of a plea of Nolo Contendere and in return the state agrees to a specific sentence. A plea bargain is always subject to acceptance by the court. If the court accepts the plea bargain, it is bound by it and the agreed upon sentence cannot be increased. If the court declines to accept the plea bargain, the Guilty or Nolo Contendere plea entered by the defendant is automatically withdrawn and it cannot later be used against the defendant at trial.
Another method that can be used to resolve a criminal case is for the defendant to enter a plea of Guilty or Nolo Contendere without the benefit of a plea bargain. This is known as pleading “straight up” to the court. Using this method, the defendant enters his plea and then the court holds a sentencing hearing to decide the sentence it will impose. When a defendant pleads “straight up”, the court may impose any sentence allowed by law. If there is a mandatory minimum sentence for the offense charged, the court may not go below it. The court is also prohibited from imposing a sentence above the legally allowed maximum sentence for the offense charged. If you are considering a plea “straight up to the court, be sure you ask your lawyer if there is a minimum mandatory sentence for the offense(s) you are charged with. By law, the court cannot impose a lower sentence than the minimum mandatory sentence proscribed by the Florida Statutes for any offense to which you plead Guilty or Nolo Contendere.
The other method of disposing of a criminal case is by trial. If you are considering taking your case to trial, be sure you have a lawyer who is skilled and experienced at trying cases before a jury. To be successful in a jury trial, your lawyer must have many skills, along with the confidence and courage to use them in the courtroom. There will be a jury selection (voir dire), opening statements, direct and cross examinations, and closing arguments. At each of these stages of the trial, the State of Florida will be committed to obtaining a conviction against you. The government will bring all of its resources to bare against you. Your lawyer must be well-prepared and committed to fighting for your rights in the face of a powerful opponent with much greater resources than you can muster. If he prevails at trial, you will go free. If the jury convicts you, there will be a sentencing hearing in which the State will most likely argue for a very high sentence.
You should choose a lawyer you trust and in whom you have great confidence – your freedom is in his hands.
Sentencing in all felony cases begins with a determination of the “Guidelines Sentence”. This is a sentence, stated in months, that is determined under the Florida Statutes using a scoring system that factors in the severity of the crime charged, the number of crimes charged, and the previous convictions of the defendant. Great care must be taken to examine the guidelines scoresheet calculation to make sure that it is properly and legally calculated.
There is a great body of law, statutes and case law, which governs sentencing in Florida. Sentencing hearings are an opportunity for your lawyer to make a very significant difference in what happens to you if you are convicted. It is very important that your lawyer have the knowledge and skills to present evidence in mitigation, including the testimony of expert witnesses and informative exhibits. Your lawyer must also be aware of the law and the defenses to sentencing enhancements such as Habitual Offender (H.O.), Prison Release Re-Offender (P.R.R.) and 10-20-Life.