Monday, March 18, 2013

How Does the State of Florida Decide What to Offer a Defendant Charged With a Crime?

Key Factors in Florida's Decision Making Process:  Part One
If you’ve been arrested, and especially if you are pretty sure you’re going to have to plead guilty or no contest, you are probably very interested to know what guidelines determine the offer you are likely to get from the state.  

It's a question that obviously brings a lot of anxiety to the hearts of many who have been arrested, because this is basically the starting point of the negotiations in how a case is going to be resolved.  The state guidelines and that initial offer will factor highly into whether or not a person is going to elect to have a trial in the matter.
More likely than not, if the offer presented by the state to resolve the issue is very harsh, then the defendant may very well exercise his or her right to go to trial, unless the case's facts do not make it practical to do so.
When an individual gets arrested in Florida, a prosecuting attorney receives the matter in the form of a police report from the arresting agency. The officer will charge you with everything he or she believes that there is probable cause to state that you have committed. This laundry list of charges, however many there may be, goes to the Case Filing Division of the local prosecutor's office. The local prosecutor's office then typically takes 30-40 days to analyze these reports.  The prosecutor will then review the relative law on the books and make their formal charging decision, indicating exactly what the person is going to be charged with.  
They will later determine what a person is going to be offered to resolve their matter.  In arriving at the offer, the state may take into account the facts of their case, the criminal record of the person being charged, as well as any and all testimony that the officer provides with regard to the arrest itself. The state can:
  1. Elect to charge the defendant with the very same crimes that the officer has charged
  2. Elect to file none of those charges
  3. Elect to file completely different charges.
All three variations happen all the time.  The Case Filing Division of the local prosecutor’s office is the office that sets the charges that you will be facing when you actually end up in court, assuming that they do file charges pursuant to your arrest.
In Florida, you have two general classes of crime:  misdemeanors and felonies. Misdemeanors are crimes punishable by anything up to 364 days in county jails. Felonies, based on their degree of the charge, generally involve more severe punishments.  
  1. For a third degree felony, a person is facing as a maximum punishment 5 years in a Florida state prison.  
  2. For a second degree penalty, 15 years Florida state prison is the maximum.
  3. For a first degree felony, the maximum is 30 years.  
  4. There are certain felonies that can be punishable by life in prison, and capital felonies which are punishable by death.

What Is a Criminal Punishment Guidelines Scoresheet?

When a person gets to court in a felony case, their previous criminal record is very important, because Florida has what's called a criminal punishment guidelines scoresheet.  A person's past criminal record factors greatly into what their initial plea offer will be, because a certain score is generated on this score sheet based on their prior offenses and their current arrest, taken together.
A person gets a certain amount of points for each new crime they're charged with. The state then adds that to a certain amount of points from prior cases where the defendant has been convicted, or resolved the case, received probation, etc.
Once these numbers are added, then generally speaking, if the number is above 44, a person is going to receive prison as an offer.  If they have a score of anything below 44 points, the guideline is called a discretionary sentence, or a sentence where any non-state prison sanction is called for.

What is a non-state prison sanction?  

For example, the state could offer you probation or county jail.  Typically, when you have a case where you don't have a victim who is particularly vocal, or the victim is the state as in a drug crime, then a person may be offered probation, county jail, or perhaps restitution.  
A person that has a bad prior record or certain charges that are serious in nature is going to have more than 44 points on their guideline scoresheet.  Generally speaking, the state will offer you somewhere between the bottom and the middle of the guidelines.
However many points you actually score, this is simply a math problem, a multiplication factor that's applied to these points. From there, the state determines how many months in prison a person is going to be offered as a result of their new criminal infraction.
Now it’s important to note that this is the starting point of the negotiations. When the state determines what to offer in a case, the offer is based on the facts of the case, the defendant’s prior record, and, if there is a victim in the crime besides the state, the input of the victim as to what they wish to see happen in the matter.
In certain cases such as drug crimes, where the state of Florida is the victim, it is entirely up to the discretion of the prosecutor and these other factors that we've talked about: prior record, facts of the case, strength of the case, and related issues, in terms of how the offer is determined.
Every victim in a case, whether it's a robbery a property crime, domestic violence matter, or any other case where there is an actual person who is a victim on the other side of the crime, the victim has a right to come before the court and make certain recommendations as to sentencing. The judges must hear these recommendations prior to proceeding to a sentence or they commit error in the matter. The judge will listen to the victim, and their testimony will be another piece in the puzzle in determining what the state is going to offer a defendant after being arrested.
It's important to note that if you're arrested for a misdemeanor, the score sheet is not applied, and no amount of points or prior record count against you mathematically. 
However, the state may take all those factors into consideration in determining what to offer.

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