Florida Defendants May Not Be Convicted of Both Theft and Receiving Stolen Property – Williams v. State

September 4, 2013 by David S. Seltzer

In many criminal cases, defendants face multiple charges because prosecutors can often find more than one offense from the same conduct. But some criminal offenses can’t be stacked on top of one another in this way because the law forbids two convictions from the same conduct. By Florida law, one such pair of charges is theft and receiving stolen property. That was the basis for the appeal in Williams v. State, in which Melvin Williams appealed his conviction for both charges and the trial court’s subsequent decision to choose one of the charges. Over his defense attorney’s objections, the court declined to give the jury an instruction saying it could find him guilty of only one charge. Williams appealed to the Second District Court of Appeal and then to the Florida Supreme Court, where he ultimately won a ruling saying courts must give that instruction.

Williams broke into a private home and stole a digital camera, DVDs, two video game systems and several games. He pawned some of them for $40, leaving a fingerprint matching prints left at the home. He was charged with burglary, grand theft, dealing in stolen property and providing false information to a pawnbroker. Based on a Florida law that forbids conviction of the same defendant for both receiving stolen property and theft, Williams asked for a jury instruction saying jurors may convict on only one of the two charges. The judge declined to give this, angrily declaring on the record that there’s no adequate jury instruction on this and that the jury would get confused. Williams was convicted on all counts and the court dismissed the lesser conviction, grand theft. The Second District Court of Appeal affirmed, reasoning that courts have generally kept only the greater conviction.

Nonetheless, the appeals court certified questions to the Florida Supreme Court, which took up the case to decide if: 1) the trial court must instruct the jury about the Florida law when both theft and receiving stolen property are charged, and 2) defendants must be given new trials if there is no such instruction and they are convicted of both crimes. The high court noted that in a companion case, it had already decided no new trial was needed when the lesser conviction was reversed. But that defendant didn’t ask for a jury instruction, the Supreme Court noted. A prior case expressly says trial courts have an obligation to instruct on this law, the court said question. And the error was not harmless because the jury could have convicted on the lesser offense, it said. Thus, it answered yes to both questions and ordered a new trial.

It’s very interesting that Williams won a new trial with his appeal, but the defendant in the companion case did not get a new trial. This underscores the importance of properly instructing the jury. Because jurors in this case were not permitted to know that they couldn’t convict Williams of both grand theft and receiving stolen property, they couldn’t determine whether he should be convicted of the greater or the lesser charge. That is properly a job for a jury, as numerous courts have noted, rather than judges. One part of my job is to ensure that my clients’ right to a jury trial is respected in all appropriate respects, even those that might seem like tangential issues to prosecutors.

Seltzer Law, P.A., represents clients across Florida who are facing all types of criminal charges. We know police officers don’t close up shop after business hours, so neither do we—we take calls 24 hours a day and seven days a week. For a free consultation, send us a message online or call 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333).

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