Florida Supreme Court Clarifies Theft Charges

The Florida Supreme Court recently tossed appellate court rulings against individuals convicted of both grand theft and dealing in stolen property, finding that the lower courts erred in failing to apply a new Florida law barring conviction for both theft and stolen property when the charges relate to a single crime.
gavel22.jpg
The findings are in line with the ruling issued last year in the case of Williams v. State .

As criminal defense lawyers in Fort Lauderdale, we recognize the importance of these rulings, as they serve to underscore the legislature’s intent in the passage of Florida Statute 812.025. Both grand theft and dealing in stolen properties are felonies of the second-degree in Florida. However, the 2012 statute indicates that when charged in connection with one scheme or course of conduct in separate counts that can be consolidated for trial, a defendant can only be found guilty of one or the other. (Both charges can be filed in the same case, but they have to be regarding separate counts.)

In the Williams case, the defendant had been accused of breaking into a residence in 2008 and stealing two video game systems, games, dozens of DVDs and a digital camera. Investigators were led to the defendant by fingerprints left on the kitchen window, where entry had been gained.

Later, the defendant reportedly sold the video game system and the various games to a pawn shop. The transaction with his thumbprint and driver’s license information was obtained.

The state subsequently charged the defendant with burglary of an unoccupied dwelling, one count of grand theft (third-degree felony), one count of dealing in stolen property (second-degree felony) and one count of providing false information to a pawn broker.

After the trial court denied a defense motion for acquittal, the defense requested that the jury be given instruction as to Florida Statute 812.025. The judge denied that request, indicating that if the jury found the defendant guilty of both, the court would later decide which one should stand. The judge in the Williams case conceded that the direction for the court to craft a lawful jury instruction based on the statute was “woefully inadequate.”

Not being instructed on the new statute, the jury convicted the defendant of both charges, and it was only after that verdict that the court moved to dismiss the grand theft conviction, the lesser of the two offenses. He was sentenced to 20 years behind bars.

The defendant appealed, arguing a new trial was in order. However, the appellate court found that trial courts had been consistently dropping the lesser of the two charges after the conviction. When trial courts had chosen to allow both convictions to stand, the appellate courts when necessary remanded for resentencing without consideration of the lesser offense. The appellate court held that the trial court hadn’t erred in following the established precedent.

The question before the state supreme court was whether a jury had to be instructed that it couldn’t technically find a defendant guilty of both crimes in connection with a single course of conduct.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled that juries do have to be instructed that they can’t find a defendant guilty of both crimes for the same conduct. The court clarified that the key distinction between the two crimes is intent – did the person steal the property in an effort to use it or with the intent to traffic it?

In the Williams case, the court found that the two charges were in connection with a single course of conduct. As such, the court should have allowed the defense to submit a jury instruction indicating that they could only convict of one or the other. The error wasn’t harmless, and the defendant was granted a new trial on the grand theft and dealing in stolen property counts.

This same reasoning is now being applied to other cases in the pipeline. In each of those cases, the defense lawyers had the foresight to raise the issue prior to the conclusion of trial, reserving the matter for later review – and reversal. This shows how cases how hiring an experienced lawyer with extensive knowledge of Florida’s criminal statutes can put the defendant at an advantage.

Call Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Dade and Palm Beach counties.

Additional Resources:
Culpepper v. State, April 17, 2014, Florida Supreme Court
Crosby v. State, April 17, 2014, Florida Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Poor Condition of Vehicle Can be Grounds for Traffic Stop, April 5, 2014, Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog