Florida High Court Rules Prosecutors Must Prove Status in School Trespassing Case – J.R. v. State

September 12, 2012 by David S. Seltzer

In order to convict anyone of a crime in Florida, prosecutors must prove all of the elements of the crime. Part of my job as a South Florida criminal defense attorney is to point out the flaws in the cases of prosecutors who do not prove all of those elements, because defendants should not be convicted when the crime is not proven. That was the logic behind a recent Florida Supreme Court ruling in J.R. v. State of Florida, in which a minor was adjudicated delinquent for trespassing at a middle school. J.R. was warned twice by Miami-Dade County School Police officers for trespassing at the school before his arrest for the third trespass. In its decision, the Florida high court said prosecutors must show that the officers were designees of the principal before they can convict J.R.

Officers Orlando Gutierrez and Gregory Williams had warned J.R. at least twice before the arrest to stay off the grounds of Ruben Dario Middle School, where he was not a student. After the third encounter, they arrested him and charged him with trespassing “after being warned by the principal or a designee.” After testimony at a bench trial, J.R. moved for dismissal because the state had not presented evidence that either officer was a designee of the principal as required by the statute. This was denied and J.R. was adjudicated delinquent. On appeal, the Third District Court of Appeal upheld the ruling, relying on a similar delinquency case that was itself on appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, D.J. v. State.

In D.J., the high court ultimately found that the status of the person giving the warning was an essential element of the crime, and thus the status must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Similarly, the Florida Supreme Court found that the state was required to prove the designee status of the officers in J.R.’s case, and overturned the lower courts. In D.J., the court held that the statute’s wording necessarily implies that the person giving the warning must have been given express or implied authorization from the principal to exercise authority over the school property. No evidence showing this was presented at either trial, the court noted. Mere status as school police officers was not sufficient evidence, the court said, and the trial court did not cite any authority establishing it. Thus, it reversed and remanded the case.

As a Fort Lauderdale juvenile criminal defense lawyer, I applaud this decision. It reaffirms the basic right of all defendants, juvenile and adult, to have the evidence against them proven beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a very important constitutional right for all criminal defendants, but which unfortunately can be overlooked by courts convinced of the defendant’s guilt. Though school police officers may very well have implied designee status from principals, the law requires that prosecutors take the trouble to prove that before they prosecute teens for delinquency or try to convict adults of a crime. As a Miami-Dade criminal defense lawyer, I believe this relatively high standard is the right one to apply when someone’s freedom and future are at stake.

Based in downtown Miami, Seltzer Law, P.A., represents clients across Florida who are facing criminal charges. If you’ve been arrested or believe you may be, don’t hesitate to call us about your rights and your legal options For a free, confidential consultation, send us a message online or call us, 24 hours a day and seven days a week, at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333).

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