Florida Supreme Court Upholds Longer Sentence for Prison Release Reoffender – Paul v. State

April 18, 2013 by David S. Seltzer

Federal and Florida law have several statutes that increase sentences for people perceived as recidivists. At the state level, one such law labels offenders Prison Release Reoffenders if they commit certain felony crimes within three years of being released from prison. This status requires the judge to sentence the offender to the maximum allowable penalty. Not surprisingly, with so much at stake, offenders given PRR status frequently try to challenge their status. That was the challenge in Paul v. State, an appeal from Charles Paul of a conviction for shooting a gun into an occupied vehicle. Paul argued that the charge was not a qualifying felony for the PRR law. The Fourth District Court of Appeal disagreed, but the decision conflicted with a First District decision, so the Florida Supreme Court took it up and ultimately agreed that Paul qualified as a PRR.

Paul was convicted of shooting into an occupied vehicle. His PRR status comes from the PRR statute’s “catchall” provision, which says the law applies to a defendant who commits “any felony that involves the use or threat of physical force or violence against an individual.” The trial court therefore sentenced Paul to 15 years in prison. He filed a postconviction motion disputing his sentence, which was denied. On appeal at the Fourth District, he argued that shooting into an occupied vehicle is not a felony that triggers the PRR law. The Fourth District affirmed, saying that it had been filed under the wrong rule, but even if it had been filed correctly, it lacked merit because firing into an occupied vehicle necessarily includes the use of force against an individual. This was a direct conflict with the First District’s decision in State v. Crapps, which found that the PRR law did not apply to Alander Crapps, convicted of throwing a deadly missile into an occupied vehicle.

The Florida Supreme Court ultimately sided with the Fourth District, agreeing that shooting into an occupied vehicle triggers longer sentences under the prison release reoffender law. Only the statutory elements of the offense can be considered when analyzing whether the PRR law applies to a particular offense, the court said; the circumstances of this particular offense are not important. Thus, it looked to the statute to determine whether violating it “involves the use or threat of physical force or violence against an individual.” The text of the statute Paul was convicted of violating, and past cases, make it clear that an element of the crime is that a person must be using or occupying it. Paul argued for a definition of “use” that didn’t necessarily require an occupant, but the high court felt this would broaden the statute to reach behaviors the state legislature didn’t intend to prohibit; vehicles would always be “in use.” It therefore upheld Paul’s sentence.

I cannot fault the logic of the high court—but as a criminal defense attorney, I’d like to talk a little about the prison release reoffender law and similar laws. All of these laws have the noble goal of attempting to discourage recidivism or protect law-abiding people, but it’s worth asking if they achieve that goal at all, or if they achieve it at a worthwhile price. By taking away judges’ discretion to sentence offenders to a penalty they think is appropriate, the PRR law and others like it fill our prisons without regard for circumstances, which is expensive and wastes lives. They also make judges into mere rubber stamps for the Legislature, which undermines the goals of having judges in the first place. That’s why I don’t blame Paul and others like him from doing their best to avoid the PRR law.

Seltzer Law, P.A., represents clients across Florida who are facing all types of criminal charges. We offer free, confidential consultations, and we answer the phone 24 hours a day and seven days a week—because we know the police don’t stop making arrests after business hours. To learn more, call us today at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us a message online.

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