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Florida criminal cases involving a defendant with mental and emotional conditions can raise a number of complicated legal issues. The state’s First District Court of Appeal made clear in a recent sex crime case that there are certain circumstances in which a judge is required to hold a hearing to determine whether a person is competent to stand trial and to issue a written decision on that question before proceeding to trial.

gavelDefendant was charged with sexual battery of a person under twelve years of age and lewd or lascivious molestation of a person under twelve years of age, stemming from an undisclosed incident. Before trial on those charges, Defendant’s lawyer asked the judge to first determine whether Defendant was sufficiently competent to stand trial.

One court-appointed expert concluded that Defendant wasn’t able to adequately understand the charges against him, but a second court-appointed expert said Defendant was competent to participate in the case. After a competency hearing, the trial court found that Defendant was sufficiently competent to proceed to trial. The judge made that decision orally, but didn’t issue a written ruling on the competency issue.

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Technological enhancements give police officers stronger tools to investigate Florida crimes, track suspects and gather evidence. They also raise new questions about protections against unlawful searches and seizures, as a recent case out of Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal makes clear.

weird computerDefendant was charged with a wide variety of Florida criminal offenses, including sexual battery and possession of child pornography, following an investigation by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. Police officers traced an internet protocol address used to download child pornography to a home in the county. When they searched the home, the officers found that none of the computers in the house that were connected to a home Wi-Fi network had been used to download illicit materials.

They also noticed that the Wi-Fi network wasn’t protected, and could therefore potentially be accessed by others outside of the home. So the cops, with the homeowner’s permission, set up a computer in the home that would allow them to remotely access and monitor the Wi-Fi network. They found the local IP address and a separate MAC address for a computer that was accessing the Wi-Fi network and using it to download pornography. The officers then used a Yagi antenna—a highly directional and shortwave antenna—to determine that the computer was inside Defendant’s motorhome. The officers obtained a warrant to search the home, where they located the computer. Defendant was convicted and sentenced to consecutive life sentences.

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A Florida appeals court recently said an Orlando priest doesn’t have to testify about what a local woman told him about being sexually abused when she was younger. The decision by the Fifth District Court of Appeal attempts to draw a line between prosecutors’ needs in Florida sex crime cases and religious protections under state law.

tattered bibleAn Orlando man in 2017 was charged with four counts of sex crimes against a minor. Police initially launched an investigation after a 17-year-old girl told her mother that the man had abused her when she was between the ages of seven and 13. State prosecutors signaled ahead of trial that they intended to introduce out-of-court statements that the victim allegedly had made to a local Catholic priest when she was 15 years old. They said the girl disclosed to the priest that she had been abused while performing the rite of confession.

The priest didn’t want to testify, however. He asked a court to issue a protective order to keep him from being hauled into court. The priest argued that being forced to disclose the conversation would violate the “sacred seal of the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation.” As a result, he argued that dragging him into court to blab about the discussion would violate his religious freedom rights under First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He also said it would violate the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act (FRFRA).

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A recent case of alleged exposure on a beach in North Florida is a good example of how Florida sex crime cases often come down to one person’s word against another’s. It also shows just how serious judges and juries take these cases and the criminal punishments that come with them.

solo guyThe defendant was charged with lewd or lascivious exhibition after he allegedly exposed himself to a girl on a beach in the Florida panhandle. The victim testified at trial that she was running along the beach when she heard the defendant call to her from a nearby condo apartment. When she turned her head, the victim said she saw the defendant staring at her and fondling himself with his pants down. The victim called the police and ran down the beach. She told her sister and mother about the incident and pointed the defendant out to them when he later drove by in a truck. The victim also identified the defendant to police officers when they arrived on the scene.

At trial, the defendant claimed that the incident was all part of a joke gone awry. He said a friend—an adult woman—had taken off her top and flashed him, so he responded by removing his pants. The defendant said he wasn’t aware that any children were in the area and he denied touching himself. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, followed by 10 years of sex offender probation.

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A person charged with a sex crime in Florida has a few options when it comes to entering a plea in court. In addition to pleading “guilty” or “not guilty,” the person can also plead “no contest.” This option means the person is not saying that he or she is guilty, only that he or she won’t contest the charges. As a recent case out of Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal shows, it is important to be fully aware of the potential penalties you’re facing before you enter a plea.

prison wireDefendant was charged with various counts of lewd and lascivious molestation of a victim under 16 years of age, lewd and lascivious exhibition to a victim under 16 years of age, battery, possession of child pornography, and use of a computer server to seduce, solicit, or entice a child. He eventually pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 40 years behind bars. Defendant later appealed the convictions, arguing that he wouldn’t have pleaded no contest if the trial judge had adequately explained to him that he was facing as much as 101 years in prison on the charges.

Although the judge may have told Defendant about the maximum penalty for each of the offenses, he said he wasn’t aware that those penalties could be imposed consecutively (back-to-back) rather than concurrently (at the same time). The trial judge sided with state prosecutors, who argued that the judge met his responsibility by simply informing Defendant of the maximum penalties per offense. The judge rejected Defendant’s request to withdraw his plea.

There are a number of potential defenses available to a person charged with a Florida sex crime. That includes arguing that he or she should at most be convicted of a lesser crime that isn’t considered a sex offense. Florida’s First District Court of Appeal recently explained how judges weigh requests to instruct a jury about lesser offenses.

gavelA defendant was charged with lewd or lascivious molestation of a child under the age of 12, stemming from an incident with his stepdaughter at a local movie theatre. Moments into the movie that he had taken the girl to see, he allegedly asked the girl if he could touch her breasts. The girl consented, according to the court, and he proceeded to touch her breasts. The girl told her mother about the incident roughly one year later, after the mother asked the girl specifically if he had ever touched her inappropriately.

The defendant admitted to the incident and reported himself to the Department of Children and Families. He later testified at trial that he touched the girl’s breasts for approximately two to three minutes and told her that she was “growing up” and “becoming quite the woman.” The trial judge declined the defendant’s request to instruct the jury that he could be convicted of battery – a lesser offense – instead of lewd or lascivious molestation. The court did, however, instruct the jury that the defendant could be convicted of attempted lewd and lascivious molestation instead. He was eventually convicted on the actual molestation charge.

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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.

In order to arrest a person without a warrant, police officers must have probable cause to believe that he or she committed a crime. If they don’t, anything the person says while under arrest – and any evidence obtained as a result of the arrest – must be excluded from the case against the person. Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal recently explained how the probable cause requirement works in a sex crime case.

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A defendant was charged with lewd or lascivious molestation, sexual battery, and lewd or lascivious conduct, following an incident involving a girl under the age of 12. The victim’s aunt held a party at her home on the night in question and woke up to the sound of her niece screaming at 3:00 a.m. When the aunt went to where the victim was sleeping, she saw a man get up from next to the victim and take off running. She described the person as a black man in his 20s with dreadlocks.

The officers who arrived on the scene gave conflicting information about whether the aunt knew the suspect. One officer said she repeatedly referred to him by the defendant’s first name, while the other said she wasn’t sure who the person was. Both said the woman and others told them the man had been at the party and lived next door. The officers went to the next door house, where the owner allowed them to come in. They found the defendant sleeping on the couch and arrested him.

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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.