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Florida sex crime cases often raise questions about the mental health of the person charged with a crime. That’s why judges in many of these cases will hold a hearing to determine whether a defendant has the competence to understand the charges against him, consult with counsel, and participate in the trial. If not, the person may be sent to a facility to receive mental health treatment and later re-evaluated. In a recent decision, Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal explained that judges are free to base competency determinations largely on the input of mental health experts.

solo guyA defendant was charged with various crimes stemming from an incident in which he allegedly filmed and took photos of young girls while they were sleeping. “Questions quickly arose concerning his competency to proceed” at trial, the court said. The trial judge ordered a competency hearing and appointed two mental health experts to evaluate him. Both experts eventually concluded that he was sufficiently competent to stand trial.

The experts’ reports were admitted into evidence during the competency hearing, but no witnesses were called. Although the judge ordered the defendant’s lawyer to prepare a draft order finding the defendant competent to stand trial, the Second District said any such order wasn’t included in the record brought to the appeals court. The defendant eventually pleaded guilty. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison, followed by 15 years of probation.

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State law allows the Florida government to ask a judge to force someone deemed a “sexually violent predator” to be committed to a secure facility without his or her consent, even if the person has finished serving a jail sentence for a Florida sex crime. A recent case out of the Fourth District Court of Appeal is a good example at how courts look at these requests.

State prosecutors in 2015 initiated proceedings to have a defendant involuntarily committed as a sexually violent predator. He had been convicted of various sex crimes after a 1992 incident in which he assaulted one woman and attempted to assault another, according to the court. The cops used DNA evidence to link him to two rapes from the previous year. In one of those incidents, he allegedly followed a restaurant employee to her home and raped the woman. Two days after that incident, he accosted a woman who was leaving a spa, pulled her down on an embankment, and held a knife to her throat while he sexually assaulted the woman, the court said. The defendant was released from prison in 2003, but he was sent back to jail four years later when he was caught peeping and masturbating outside a woman’s window.

gavelProsecutors based the civil commitment case primarily on the testimony of one psychologist, Dr. Rapa. The psychologist told the trial court that the defendant had since the 1980s “cruised” around looking for people as objects of masturbation, engaged in voyeurism, and fantasized about rape. Dr. Rapa also asked the defendant 10 questions designed to determine whether he was likely to commit additional crimes if released. Based on his age, his criminal history, and his responses to the questions, Dr. Rapa said his chance of committing another offense was 28 percent in the next five years and 43 percent over the next 10 years. She said the defendant suffered from voyeuristic disorder and anti-social personality disorder and recommended that he be placed in a secure facility, or otherwise he would be likely to commit new crimes.

The burden of proof required in any Florida criminal case is an important protection for people charged with sex and other crimes in the Sunshine State. Prosecutors bear the burden at all times of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed the specific crime with which you have been charged. A simple hunch that you committed the crime – or even evidence showing that it’s more likely that not – is not enough to secure a conviction.

calendarIn a recent case out of Florida’s First District Court of Appeal, the court explained that there are some facts that prosecutors may not need to prove. In a child sex case, the court said the specific date on which the alleged crimes happened is one of them.

The defendant was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of two counts of capital sexual battery against two children under the age of 12. He later appealed the decision, arguing that the victims were unable to say when the alleged abuse happened. He also said the prosecutors were unable to show that he actually committed the crimes during the time alleged in the criminal complaint:  April 2010 to April 2012 for the first victim and December 2011 to April 2012 for the other victim.

Witness evidence is often key in Florida sex crime cases. In a recent case out of Florida’s First District Court of Appeal, the court examined some of the common legal questions that come up related to witness credibility.

gavel woodThe defendant was charged with sexual battery on a victim less than 12 years old. The charge stemmed from an incident in which he allegedly molested a family friend. The court said the defendant was close with the victim’s family and often visited her home. He told a judge that on the morning in question, he arrived at the home high on drugs and lay down next to the victim in the living room. The victim’s father testified that he entered the living room and saw the victim with the defendant’s penis in her mouth.

The defendant told the judge that he fell asleep on the couch and woke up to find that the victim was performing oral sex on him. He said the victim’s father walked in just as he woke up. The victim gave a different account of the incident. She told the judge that the defendant woke her up, grabbed her by the head, and forced her to put his penis in her mouth. But the victim told her mother only that her father walked into the room and saw the victim with the defendant’s penis in her mouth. She didn’t tell her mother that the defendant forced himself on her. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The jury returned the verdict in 12 minutes.

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Florida sexual assault and battery cases often come down to one person’s word against another’s, especially in cases involving a victim and an alleged perpetrator who know each other. In a recent case, the state’s Fourth District Court of Appeal took on just one of those cases, including some unique questions about the victim’s previous claims of sexual battery.

The defendant was charged with armed sexual battery against his ex-wife, with whom he had previously been married for 20 years. The victim said she had just returned to her apartment from dropping her children at school when the defendant showed up. He allegedly told the woman that he had a knife in his backpack, said “now you’re going to get it,” and warned her not to make a commotion. The woman didn’t scream or fight the defendant when he then had sex with her inside the home, according to the court. She did run to a neighbor’s house when the defendant moved to get his cell phone. She called the police, who arrested him.

gavelSome of the details of the couple’s stormy relationship became clear at trial. They were married for 22 years when they separated in 2008. In a deposition, the victim said the defendant had previously tried to rape her in 2001. She also testified at length about being sexually abused by her employer years earlier, according to the court. But the judge blocked the defendant’s lawyer’s attempts to later ask the victim about those allegations at trial. DNA evidence showed his DNA, and a nurse who examined the victim said her injuries were consistent with her version of the events. The defendant was convicted and sentenced to at least 25 years in prison.

Plea deals can be a very effective way to resolve a criminal case and limit the potential consequences of a conviction for a sex crime or other crime. That said, it’s important for a person considering a plea to fully understand what he or she is agreeing to do, the rights he or she is giving up, and the benefit (if any) he or she is getting in return. As a recent case out of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida shows, you usually can’t take the agreement back once you sign it.

police lightA defendant was arrested and charged with production of child pornography after police found that he was allegedly exchanging pornographic material with another person via email. The cops found the emails after arresting another man on similar charges in Tennessee. FBI agents and police officers obtained a warrant to search the defendant’s home in Jacksonville, where they seized a laptop computer and thumb drive. They later found some 650 child pornography images on the computer and thumb drive.

When law enforcement officers talked to the defendant at his work, he admitted to controlling the email account that the cops had found was sending and receiving child pornography, according to the court. He told the cops that he had used his iPhone to capture some of the images while babysitting a nine-year-old child.

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Florida sex crimes are often prosecuted in state courts as violations of state law. It is important to understand, however, that federal criminal laws also prohibit a wide range of sex crimes. Those laws often come into play when one person crosses a state border as part of the crime, as a recent case out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit shows.

U.S. MapA defendant was charged with enticing a minor to engage in sexual activity, a federal crime, stemming from his involvement with a 17-year-old girl. The defendant, who was 36 years old at the time, drove from Georgia to Florida to meet the girl after communicating with her online. He took the girl to a hotel and allegedly engaged in sexual activity with her. He also took 17 photos of the girl engaging in sexual activity and posing nude, according to the court. He tried to delete those photos when he was arrested, but officers later recovered the pictures during a forensic examination of his cell phone. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.

The defendant later appealed the conviction to the Eleventh Circuit. The federal law under which he was convicted makes it a crime to entice a minor to engage in sexual activity “for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense.” He argued that meant it only covered situations in which a person entices the minor to commit a crime. Since the victim in this case did not commit a crime by having consensual sex with him, he argued that he did not violate the federal law.

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Plea deals are an important potential tool for anyone charged with a crime in Florida. They allow you to resolve the charges and move on with your life, often with a reduced punishment. It’s important to understand, however, that in most cases you can’t take back a plea deal once you’ve been convicted. One important exception to that rule is in cases in which new evidence tends to show that you didn’t commit the crime with which you were charged. Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal recently explained how courts look at newly discovered evidence in Florida lewd and lascivious molestation cases.

gavelA defendant was charged with two counts of committing a lewd and lascivious act in 1997, stemming from allegations that he molested his stepdaughters. The girls were six and seven years old at the time. The defendant eventually reached a deal with prosecutors. He pleaded no contest to the charges in exchange for 10 years of probation with the opportunity for early termination after five years. He went back to court in 2015 and asked a judge to withdraw his conviction based on new evidence. He presented statements from the two victims, who said they lied to police about the incidents. Although the women also later testified at a hearing that they had lied to police during an interview, a trial judge denied the defendant’s request. The judge said he “ha[d] not demonstrated a manifest injustice based on actual innocence.”

But the Third District reversed the decision on appeal. The court said the trial judge used the wrong standard to consider the defendant’s request. It pointed to the Florida Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in Long v. State. The high court in that case laid out a two-pronged test for considering a request to scrap a conviction based on new evidence.

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Anyone suspected of or charged with a sex crime in Florida should have an attorney by his or her side when talking to the police. As a recent case out of the state’s First District Court of Appeal shows, police interview statements can be later used against you in court.

police lightA defendant was arrested and charged with sexual battery on a person physically helpless to resist. The charge stemmed from an incident in which the defendant and a friend allegedly had sex with a female acquaintance at a party. The defendant denied having sex with the woman in an interview with a police officer. The officer explained that DNA tests would be performed to determine if he was telling the truth. The defendant, in response, told the officer that his DNA was likely on the sheets in the bed where the battery allegedly took place, and it could also be on the victim because she had been in the bed. He maintained, however, that he didn’t have sex with the woman. The officer responded as follows:

“Okay. So that’s what you’re gonna stick with. Because I’m going to find out probably if you did. I mean, I’m going to find—if you did, I’m going to find out. I don’t want to—I don’t want you to [mislead] me. One chance to tell me the truth. And that’s where we’re at. Final words.”

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Search and seizure issues can often make or break a criminal case in Florida. State and federal laws impose a number of restrictions on law enforcement officers. That includes requiring them to have a “reasonable suspicion” to believe a crime is being committed or has recently been committed to stop a car or frisk a person on the street and to have “probable cause” to search a home. As the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida recently explained, however, there’s a big exception for cases in which a person voluntarily agrees to a search or to answering questions from the cops.

police handcuffsThe defendant was arrested in 2011 for allegedly videotaping himself having sex with a minor. The victim of the crime led police officers to the defendant’s home on the day of his arrest. The four officers, who were in an unmarked truck and were not wearing uniforms, presented their police identification to the defendant’s uncle, and one identified himself as a police officer to the defendant when he appeared on the scene. The defendant agreed to speak with the officers, who confronted him with the victim’s claim that he had taped himself having sex with her. The officer asked for permission to enter his bedroom and found a number of items in the room that matched the victim’s description of the room. The defendant later gave the officer permission to photograph the room.

Another officer arrived on the scene and informed the defendant in Spanish of his right to remain silent and right to an attorney. He proceeded to answer questions and voluntarily allowed the officers to search his bedroom. He was charged with a number of criminal offenses, including engaging in a commercial sex act with a minor, producing child pornography, and possessing child pornography. He was eventually convicted on both of the child pornography charges. He was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison.

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