Court Discusses Downward Departure Sentences in Florida Criminal Cases

In Florida, when sentencing a person convicted of a crime, the courts will generally rely on statutory guidelines. The courts have the discretion to deviate from the guidelines, however, if the party seeking an upward or downward sentence demonstrates that a departure is warranted. In a recent opinion issued in a Florida case in which the defendant was convicted of multiple crimes following a deadly accident, the court discussed when a downward departure sentence is appropriate. If you are charged with manslaughter or any other crime following an accident, it is in your best interest to talk to a Sarasota criminal defense attorney about your rights.

Factual and Procedural History

It is reported that the defendant was charged with manslaughter and numerous other crimes after she was involved in a fatal car accident. A jury ultimately found her guilty of driving without a license causing serious bodily injury or death. She moved for a downward departure sentence, arguing that she was not the proximate cause of death as the other driver caused the accident. The trial court denied her motion, however, stating that it did not have the discretion to issue a downward departure sentence based on comparative liability for the injuries. Consequently, the defendant was sentenced to the minimum scoresheet of approximately 15 years in prison. She appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in concluding that it was prohibited from considering her comparative fault as a potential basis for a downward departure sentence.

Determining Whether a Downward Departure Sentence is Appropriate

The court explains that determining the appropriateness of a downward departure sentence involves a two-step process. First, the court must ascertain whether there is a valid legal ground for the departure, as set forth in a statute or case law, and supported by facts proven by a preponderance of the evidence. Second, if a valid legal ground exists, the court must determine whether the departure is the best sentencing option by evaluating the totality of the circumstances.

In the subject case, the court found that the trial court did not reach the second step of the process, focusing instead on whether a valid legal ground for departure existed. Section 921.0026(2) of the Florida Statutes lists mitigating circumstances permitting a downward departure from the lowest permissible guideline sentence. The court noted, though, that a trial court can impose a downward departure sentence for reasons not specifically outlined in the statute as long as the given reason is supported by competent and substantial evidence and is not otherwise prohibited.

The court then considered whether comparative fault, although not explicitly mentioned in the statutory mitigating factors, can serve as a prohibited basis for seeking a downward departure sentence, ultimately concluding that it could, as long as it is supported by the facts and evidence. As such, the court vacated the defendant’s sentence and remanded the matter for a new sentencing hearing.

Meet with a Skilled Sarasota Criminal Defense Attorney

While many car accidents merely result in traffic citations, some lead to criminal charges. If you are accused of one or more crimes following a motor vehicle collision, it is smart to meet with an attorney to evaluate your potential defenses. The skilled Sarasota criminal defense lawyers of Hanlon Law can assess the facts of your case and aid you in pursuing the best legal outcome possible. You can contact Hanlon Law by calling 941-462-1789 or using the online form to set up a conference.

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