Florida Supreme Court Rules Trial Judge May Not Arbitrarily Round Up Sentences – Cromartie v. State of Florida
Part of my job as a Miami criminal defense lawyer is to secure fair and reasonable sentences for my clients (when they are convicted). Every sentence has a range, but it can be affected by multiple factors, including prior convictions as well as the judge’s own discretion. Judicial discretion can keep defendants from serving unfair sentences, but it can also be abused. That was the contention of Carlos Cromartie in Cromartie v. State of Florida, a recent decision from the Florida Supreme Court. Cromartie did not contest his conviction for selling cocaine within 1,000 feet of a church, but he did argue that the trial judge’s policy of always rounding up sentences to full years was illegal under a previous Florida decision, Hannum v. State. The First District Court of Appeal upheld the sentence, but the Florida Supreme Court reversed and remanded it for resentencing.
Cromartie was convicted of both cocaine trafficking and possession of cocaine for sale within 1,000 feet of a church. His original sentence was computed according to a sentencing scoresheet that gave him a sentence of 93.975 months, which she rounded to 94 months, or 7.83 years. She then rounded it to 8 years. Cromartie’s attorneys later filed to change the sentence because the trafficking offense had been calculated as a Level 8 offense instead of Level 7. The new minimum sentence was 6.16 years, and the judge again said she would round it to 7 years. The attorney for Cromartie objected that the judge should use the same fraction of years, 0.2, that she did before. The judge said she always rounds up to full years because “that’s just my way” and “I don’t operate with that kind of precision.” On appeal, the First District Court of Appeal agreed with Cromartie that the judge’s rounding-up policy violates due process, but found he had not preserved the issue for appeal. Cromartie appealed again to the Florida high court.
That court reversed the First District. Under Hannum, it said, the Second District had found that the post-trial motion Cromartie used was not the correct way of preserving issues for appeal. However, the high court said, the Hannum court also found that a fundamental error in the sentencing process is always automatically preserved for appeal because it is equivalent to a denial of due process. The Florida Supreme Court adopted that rule in this case, and accepted jurisdiction to decide whether the error in Cromartie’s case was a due process violation. Cromartie’s post-trial motion objecting to the rounding-up policy could not raise the policy as a sentencing error, the court said, but the sentencing error in question was nonetheless a fundamental one. The judge improperly and arbitrarily extended Cromartie’s incarceration. Thus, it quashed the decision and sent it back for resentencing. A concurring opinion by Judge Pariente disagreed with the majority, saying the issue had been properly preserved for appeal. And a dissent by Judges Canady and Polston argued that the “minor impact” of the judge’s rounding-up policy on Cromartie’s sentence was not fundamental error.
As a south Florida criminal defense attorney, I suspect the judges would not find the impact so minor if they were arbitrarily obliged to serve ten months in prison. This decision is good news for Florida defendants and their families. Our judicial system requires prosecutors to prove their cases beyond a reasonable doubt, because its designers recognize that putting someone in prison is a grave responsibility that juries should be very sure about. The same philosophy underlies the high court’s decision on sentencing — people should be sentenced to the time indicted by their offenses, not that time plus however many more months it takes to create a round number. As a Fort Lauderdale drug crimes defense lawyer, I appreciate the court’s willingness to acknowledge that people convicted of crimes still have rights, and loved ones who also suffer while they are gone.