Recent Florida Supreme Court Case Answers Lingering Double Jeopardy Question
March 27, 2022 Don Pumphrey, Jr. Criminal Defense, News & Announcements Social Share
The Double Jeopardy Clause of the United States Constitution and Florida Constitution prohibits the government from prosecuting someone more than once for a crime that is the same or substantially the same. To read more about Double Jeopardy generally, visit our blog post here.
The Case Generally
On March 17, 2022, the Florida Supreme Court decided State v. Johnson. This case presented an interesting question regarding Double Jeopardy and car accidents. The statute in question is Florida Statute Section 316.027, “Crash involving death or personal injuries.” It states in pertinent part that:
The driver of a vehicle involved in a crash occurring on public or private property which results in injury to a person other than serious bodily injury shall immediately stop the vehicle at the scene of the crash, or as close thereto as possible, and shall remain at the scene of the crash until he or she has fulfilled the requirements of s. 316.062. A person who willfully violates this paragraph commits a felony of the third degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
Additionally, it states that:
The driver of a vehicle involved in a crash occurring on public or private property which results in serious bodily injury to a person shall immediately stop the vehicle at the scene of the crash, or as close thereto as possible, and shall remain at the scene of the crash until he or she has fulfilled the requirements of s. 316.062. A person who willfully violates this paragraph commits a felony of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
Lastly, it deals with this scenario:
The driver of a vehicle involved in a crash occurring on public or private property which results in the death of a person shall immediately stop the vehicle at the scene of the crash, or as close thereto as possible, and shall remain at the scene of the crash until he or she has fulfilled the requirements of s. 316.062. A person who is arrested for a violation of this paragraph and who has previously been convicted of a violation of this section, s. 316.061, s. 316.191, or s. 316.193, or a felony violation of s. 322.34, shall be held in custody until brought before the court for admittance to bail in accordance with chapter 903. A person who willfully violates this paragraph commits a felony of the first degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084, and shall be sentenced to a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment of 4 years. A person who willfully commits such a violation while driving under the influence as set forth in s. 316.193(1) shall be sentenced to a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment of 4 years.
The issue becomes one of interpretation because, under the statute, when a car accident results in the serious bodily injury or death of someone, the driver of a vehicle involved in the crash must stop and stay at the scene until they have provided identifying information to any injured person and the police and have rendered reasonable assistance to anybody that is injured (the requirements of Florida Statute Section 316.062(1)). If you do not fulfill these requirements, you could be slapped with a first, second, or third-degree felony depending on specifics regarding the crash and injuries.
The certified question before the court, therefore, became:
Given the requirements of section 316.062(1), Florida Statutes, does conviction on multiple counts under section 316.027(2), Florida Statutes, stemming from a single crash involving multiple victims, expose a defendant to multiple punishments for one offense in violation of the double-jeopardy protections of the U.S. Constitution?
The Facts of the Case
The defendant, Deontae Johnson, was involved in a 3-car crash. The crash resulted in one person dying and three others injured. He fled the scene without fulfilling his statutory obligations to provide information and provide reasonable assistance. Consequently, he was charged with four violations of the statute (one for each victim). The jury deliberated and returned a guilty verdict on each count charged. The trial court then dismissed a count on the basis that two of the injured people were riding in the same car. Therefore, Johnson was convicted on three counts.
The case was appealed to the First District where Johnson argued that his multiple convictions stemming from a single crash violated his Double Jeopardy rights. The First District agreed, vacating two of the convictions. Judge Winokur concurred, bound by the First District’s precedent on this issue.
The Court’s Decision
In pondering whether Johnson committed one or four offenses when he fled a four-victim car crash scene without complying with the statutory requirements to stay on scene and provide information/assistance, the Court held that the statute “contemplates a per-crash-victim unit of prosecution. Therefore, Johnson’s separate convictions for each crash victim were not multiple punishments for the same offense.” The Court quashed the First District’s decision and remanded for further proceedings consistent with their holding.
The Court’s Reasoning
In order to answer the inquiry, the Court had to determine the permissible “unit of prosecution” for a violation of the statute. “Unit of prosecution refers to the aspect of criminal activity that the legislature intended to punish.” Therefore, the Court must turn to statutory interpretation. Since the statute does not explicitly lay out its own specifications for the permissible unit of prosecution, the Court must infer from “the overall statutory scheme and language of the statute.” In finding that the statute contemplated a per-crash-victim unit of prosecution, they looked at the intent of the statute. Section 316.027 is a victim-centric statute, meaning that it imposes different punishments depending on what happens to each victim, and the punishments separated by the three paragraphs are “mutually exclusive.” Since the first paragraph addresses crashes that result in injuries that are not serious bodily injuries, the second paragraph refers to crashes that result in serious bodily injury, and the third paragraph involves crashes that result in death, the Court found that the Legislature was concerned about the effect a crash would have on each individual victim, not the effect of the crash as a whole. Additionally, since Section 316.027 imposes obligations on the driver for each crash victim, it would make sense to punish their violation of the statute on a per-crash-victim basis.
Johnson argued that Section 316.027 stating that the driver “shall stop” and “shall remain” at the scene of the accident means that the crash overall is the unit of prosecution since it punishes a singular failure to remain at the scene as a whole. But the Court found this argument insufficient since the text indicates that the Legislature wanted to focus on the victims and not just the crash scene overall. Johnson, however, pointed to several district cases showing that the courts there decided opposite the Florida Supreme Court. The big case leading to all those decisions was Hoag v. State, a Fifth District opinion that interpreted an earlier version of the same statute in this case.
In the earlier version of the statute, the driver had to stay on scene until he fulfilled the requirements of the statute, but the earlier version referred generally to “an accident resulting in injury or death of any person” and does not have the distinctive paragraphs for different types of injuries like the current statute. Additionally, the older version had the offense at a fixed classification of a third-degree felony, unlike the current version in which the degree of penalty will depend on what happened to each victim.
The Court opined that they are “not sure that Hoag got the unit of prosecution analysis right, even as to the 1987 version of section 316.027.” But this is irrelevant since the older statute was amended to make it more victim-oriented. The Court stated that, given the amendments and evolutions of the statute, they are not persuaded by Hoag and its progeny.
Justice LaBarga, the lone progressive judge on Florida’s Supreme Court, concluded that “a defendant may only be prosecuted under section 316.027(2), Florida Statutes, on a per crash basis and not per victim.” He dissented to the majority’s interpretation of the statute, and he would approve the First District’s decision.
Tallahassee Criminal Defense Attorney
Ensure your rights are protected during your criminal proceeding. If you or a loved one has been accused of a crime in Florida, contact a qualified Tallahassee criminal defense attorney as soon as possible to discuss your case. Don Pumphrey and the members of the legal team at Pumphrey Law Firm have decades of experience protecting the rights of their clients and fighting for their freedom. Give us a call at (850) 681 – 7777 or send an online message to discuss your legal matter during an open and free consultation with an attorney in our team.
Written by Gabi D’Esposito