Recent Florida Court of Appeals Decision Defines Rules for the Sentencing of Molestation Crimes

August 9, 2021 Criminal Defense, News & Announcements, Sex Crimes

In Florida, criminal defendants can be charged with several criminal counts at one time. However, courts have to comply with applicable sentencing statutes when sentencing for each conviction. When they don’t, the sentence can be deemed illegal. Such was the case in recent Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal ruling, Prentice v. State. In Prentice, the court reversed the defendant’s sentence for molestation, ruling that the sentences were unlawful.

Basis of the Defendant’s Appeal

Prentice, the Appellant, appealed his sentences entered in the lower court. The Court of Appeal ruled that the trial court erred in several ways, but all of the errors were harmless and could be corrected without further proceedings in the trial court. They affirmed the sentences imposed but remanded for the identified ministerial corrections. Additionally, there was an error concerning the imposition of costs that the court held might require a further hearing.

The Facts of the Case

The Appellant was charged with three counts of lewd or lascivious molestation on a victim less than 12 years old by an offender 18 years old or older. The Appellant entered an open plea of no contest to the charges. The plea form contained language stating that the Appellant was advised by his attorney that “both mandatory and discretionary fees and costs may be imposed” for the attorney’s services at the time of sentencing, totaling to $550. The plea form also stated that the Appellant had the “right to contest the fees and costs at the time of sentencing,” and had a section stating that the Appellant agreed to the amounts and waived his right to protest the amounts stated on the form. The trial court accepted the Appellant’s plea and the Appellant’s prior record had one misdemeanor driving offense.

During sentencing, the Appellant requested imposition of the statutory minimum sentence, which would be twenty-five years in prison followed by lifetime probation for the molestation offenses. The State provided that section 775.082(3)(a)(4) of the Florida Statutes gave the trial court the option of imposing a sentence of either life imprisonment or a split sentence of no less than twenty-five years followed by lifetime probation. The State required the life sentence. The Appellant was adjudicated guilty and sentenced on each molestation count to life in prison with a twenty-five-year mandatory minimum, and to thirty years in prison on all attempted sexual battery counts. When pronouncing these sentences, the trial court listed each life sentence and then stated after each sentence “that you do spend the rest of your life in prison, I do sentence you to life.” The court then stated that “[e]ach of those also have a twenty-five-year minimum sentence that I’m required to impose.” For the attempted sexual battery counts, neither side requested a specific sentence. So, for those counts, the trial court imposed the maximum sentence of thirty years in prison. The sentences for all five counts were to run concurrently.

After pronouncing the above-outlined sentences and after the trial court’s request, the clerk announced the costs and fees, including a $304.50 transcript fee for the public defender in addition to the above $500 contained on the plea form.

The Appellant then gave notice of appeal and filed a motion to correct the sentence pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.800(b)(2). In the motion, the Appellant raised three points:

  1. A resentencing on the molestation counts is required because the sentences of life in prison with the twenty-five-year mandatory minimum were not statutorily authorized.
  2. The judgments for the attempted sexual battery counts failed to include a citation to section 774.04 of the Florida Statutes.
  3. The transcript fee of $304.50 to the public defender has to be stricken because it was imposed without sufficient proof and without the Appellant’s opportunity to be heard and argue against the fee.

The trial court did not rule on the motion within sixty days after it was filed, so it was denied pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.800(b)(2)(B).

The Court’s Holding and Reasoning

  1. The Court agreed with the Appellant that the statute does not authorize both a life sentence and a twenty-five-year mandatory minimum and that a twenty-five-year mandatory minimum applies only where a split sentence is imposed, not where a life sentence is imposed. The State conceded that the Appellant’s life sentence for the molestation counts erroneously included a twenty-five-year mandatory minimum. But the State argued that the trial court’s pronouncement of the sentence made it clear that it intended to impose a life sentence for each molestation count. The court’s review of the trial court record led them to the conclusion that the trial court imposed life sentences for each molestation count. In such a situation where the oral pronouncement is clear that for each molestation count, the trial court unambiguously intended to impose a life sentence, the court did not need a need from a due process or other constitutional standpoint to require a hearing on remand. They held that the sufficient remedy is for the trial court to remand to enter a corrected written sentence for each molestation count, removing the twenty-give year mandatory minimum provision. 
  2. The court held that, because the judgment should include a citation to the statute regarding attempt, they must remand to correct the scrivener’s error in the written judgment. But, since this is just a ministerial act, resentencing and the Appellant’s presence are not required to achieve this remedy.
  3. The court reversed the trial court’s order assessing the amount of public defender fees and costs and remanded for the trial court to either reduce the public defender fee to $500 or hold an evidentiary hearing to provide evidence to support the public defender fees and costs assessed with proper notice to the defendant and opportunity to contest the amount.

This article was written by Gabi D’Esposito

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