As a Fort Lauderdale theft criminal defense attorney, I was interested to see a Florida Supreme Court ruling on retifying mistakes made in the sentencing of a burglary and theft defendant. In Mapp v. State, Charles Mapp pleaded guilty in Polk County of burglary, theft, grand theft auto and possession of cocaine and drug paraphernalia. The appeal centers not on the charges themselves, however, but on a mistake by the prosecution. Florida has a law designating certain defendants as Habitual Felony Offenders, which enhances the sentences of people accused of felonies who have two previous felonies, and either are still serving time for the previous convictions or committed the new felony within five years of the last conviction. To use this law, prosecutors must provide advance notice that they intend to; they did not do this in Mapp’s case. Rather, they brought it up at a sentencing hearing after the guilty plea, and Mapp was then sentenced as an HFO on some counts, plus restitution for the thefts.
Mapp’s south Florida criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to strike the sentence and restitution, claiming the HFO designation and amount of restitution were both sentencing errors. These were granted, and the prosecution appealed to the Second District Court of Appeal. That court reversed. Mapp’s attorney had moved to strike under Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.800 (b), which pertains to sentencing errors; the Second found that they were errors in the sentencing process. Because Mapp’s lawyer hadn’t brought the objection up under the applicable rule, the appeal court found the issue was not preserved for appeal. It reinstated the sentence, and Mapp appealed to the state Supreme Court.
The high court was a great deal more sympathetic. It started by establishing that “there is no question that Mapp was improperly classified as a habitual felony offender,” since the state had conceded this. Thus, the only issue was whether Mapp’s motion under Rule 3.800 (b) properly preserved his appeal. The Supreme Court found that it did. Under its own previous decision in Jackson v. State (2008), Rule 3.800 (b) applies when the error affects the sanctions ultimately imposed (such as a sentence). Furthermore, the court wrote, breaking specific laws on HFO sentencing constitutes fundamental error, which is covered by the rule under Jackson. Thus, it reinstated the trial court’s order to strike the HFO sentences. However, it agreed with the Second that Rule 3.800 (b) did not apply to the restitution order and upheld that part of the decision.
This decision pleases me, as a Miami burglary criminal defense attorney. The distinction the appeal court drew, between an error in the sentencing process and an error in the sentence itself, is very fine. Indeed, one might say that the appeal court was splitting hairs. That’s unfortunate because the outcome matters a lot to Mapp and others in his position. HFO sentencing doubles the penalties for third-degree felonies like the ones he was facing. Because he was not given notice about the HFO sentencing request, he essentially pleaded guilty thinking he would serve no more than half the time he was given. The Supreme Court’s decision here preserves defendants’ right to fully understand the sentencing they face before they enter a plea.