Florida Supreme Court Rules State May Not Appeal Criminal Sentence for Procedural Errors – State v. McMahon

April 25, 2012 by David S. Seltzer

One of the few advantages that criminal defendants enjoy over the much more powerful prosecution is that the prosecutors have a limited ability to appeal cases. As a result, it’s rare to see a criminal appeal from the state’s attorneys; they must have both the ability to appeal and the facts that make an appeal a good gamble. That’s why I was interested, as a Fort Lauderdale drug crimes defense lawyer, to see a Florida Supreme Court case addressing whether Florida prosecutors may appeal a sentence when the judge improperly started discussing a plea without either side bringing it up. In State v. McMahon, the court also disregarded the Habitual Felony Offender law. Finding that neither fact was enough to warrant an appeal, the Florida Supreme Court sided with the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s decision in the case and disregarded a Fifth District ruling.

John McMahon was charged with possession of cocaine, possession of drug paraphernalia and grand theft, though the opinion didn’t explain the background of those charges. In a hearing in trial court, his south Florida criminal defense attorney told the judge he hoped to resolve the case at that hearing, and that McMahon qualified for a sentence range whose bottom end was 18 months in prison. The prosecution had already put in notice that it planned to seek a habitual felony offender sentence, but the judge told McMahon’s attorney that if McMahon pleaded that day, the judge would not “habitualize” him. McMahon subsequently did plead and receive the minimum 18-month sentence. The prosecution appealed, arguing that the court should not have initiated a conversation about a plea deal but should have granted a hearing on the habitualization. Though it agreed that the plea discussion was improper, the Fourth District Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal, saying the state may not appeal a sentence unless it is illegal, and this one was legal because it fell within sentencing guidelines.

The Florida Supreme Court took up the case, finding this in conflict with a Fifth District decision, State v. Chaves-Mendez, which found an improper plea dialogue was per se reversible error. Prosecutors may appeal sentences in Florida only on the grounds that they are illegal or below the lowest permissible under the guidelines. In the end, the high court found that the improper dialogue did not make the sentence illegal. A 2000 case, State v. Warner, found that any improper judicial involvement in plea discussions would be harmless error — and thus, not make the sentence per se invalid. Thus, the Supreme Court said, Chaves-Mendez was incorrect to hold that improper judicial involvement was per se reversible error, and the Fourth District was right. Next, it ruled that the Fourth District was wrong to find the trial judge improperly initiated the plea dialogue, saying the defense counsel initiated it by saying he hoped to resolve the case that morning. It found that the court did err in not holding a habitual felony offender hearing, but ruled that this also does not make the sentence illegal and appealable.

This decision is good news for criminal defendants and Miami-Dade theft criminal defense lawyers like me. Like every court system in the country, Florida’s court system is somewhat biased toward plea deals. Pleading guilty in exchange for lowered charges or sentences avoids the expense and uncertainty of a trial, and for the courts, it also reduces the backlog of cases that threatens to delay justice. The concern with judge-led plea discussions is that judges may coerce defendants, or seem to, with their authority; the defendant may worry that he or she will be penalized for rejecting the plea deal. And of course, there are good reasons for rejecting plea deals; not every offer is a good one, which is why I always discuss the pros and cons with my clients before making a deal with prosecutors.

Miami-based Seltzer Law, P.A., represents clients across Florida who are accused of serious state and federal crimes, including drug and property crimes. To learn more or set up a free consultation, call us 24 hours a day and seven days a week at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us an email.

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