The COVID-19 pandemic has altered many aspects of criminal cases. For example, many criminal trials were delayed or conducted remotely, and some prisoners were able to obtain compassionate release due to the risk of contracting the coronavirus. As discussed in a recent Florida opinion issued in a theft case, though, COVID-19, in and of itself, is not a sufficient reason to grant a downward departure sentence. If you are accused of a theft offense, it is prudent to meet with a trusted Sarasota theft crime defense attorney to assess your options.
The Facts of the Case
It is alleged that the defendant was charged with felony petit theft for taking sunglasses from a store without paying. He failed to appear at a hearing, and the charges against him were amended to include a charge for failure to appear. He was arrested and spent ten months in jail. At a hearing for pretrial release, his attorney requested the lowest permitted sentence of fifty-five months in prison. The State rejected the offer, citing his extensive criminal history.
Reportedly, the trial court asked the state to confirm the lowest permissible sentence, then proposed that if the defendant pled guilty, it would issue a downward departure sentence due to COVID-19. The state objected, but the court sentenced the defendant to two years of probation. The state appealed.
Grounds for Granting a Downward Departure Sentence
On appeal, the state argued that there were no legitimate statutory or non-statutory mitigating factors that supported a downward departure sentence. Specifically, it argued that a generalized fear of COVID-19 was not a valid reason for the departure and the trial court’s assertion that the crime was de minimus contradicted the sentencing policy developed by the legislature.
The appellate court agreed, stating that trial courts cannot depart from the lowest allowed sentence unless there are factors or circumstances that reasonably justify the downward departure. Florida Statute section 921.026 sets forth numerous non-exclusive mitigating factors the courts might consider as grounds for issuing a downward departure sentence. The courts can issue downward departure sentences for reasons other than those listed, though, as long as the reason is supported by substantial, competent evidence and is not otherwise barred.
Prior to departing, though, a court must assess whether the defendant has established by a preponderance of the evidence that there is a valid reason to depart. In the subject case, the appellate court found that the defendant failed to meet this burden. As such, the departed sentence was improper.
Meet with a Trusted Sarasota Criminal Defense Lawyer
The Florida courts consider numerous factors when determining a criminal sentence, and a conviction for a seemingly minor theft crime could result in a substantial prison term. If you are accused of a theft offense, it is in your best interest to meet with an attorney as soon as possible. The trusted Sarasota criminal defense lawyers of Hanlon Law can advise you of your rights and aid you in seeking the best legal outcome possible under the facts of your case. You can contact Hanlon Law via the online form or by calling at 941-462-1789 to set up a conference.