Florida Supreme Court Declines to Reach Jurisdiction Claim, Ruling Challenge Is Time Barred – Carbajal v. State
One issue that comes up often in my work as a Fort Lauderdale criminal defense attorney is the importance of meeting court deadlines. In legal matters, deadlines are absolutely vital because missing one can end an entire case, no matter how valid the underlying claim might be. That was what happened in Carbajal v. State, a Florida Supreme Court ruling rejecting an appeal by David Carbajal, who is serving a lengthy sentence for drug offenses. All of his offenses took place in the same county and thus the same Florida judicial circuit, but he was prosecuted by the Office of the Statewide Prosecutor. More than five years after his conviction, he challenged that office’s jurisdiction, saying this robbed the circuit court of its authority to convict him. The Second District Court of Appeal certified this issue to the state Supreme Court, which decline to reach it on the grounds that Carbajal waited too long.
The Office of the Statewide Prosecutor was created in 1986 by popular vote to prosecute organized crimes taking place in multiple state judicial circuits. It filed a ten-count indictment of Carbajal in December of 2001. He pleaded nolo contendere to unspecified drug crimes and is serving 155 months in prison. He filed no appeal of his sentence or conviction, but in February of 2007, moved for postconviction relief on the grounds that the OSP had no jurisdiction to prosecute him. He contended that the motion was not time-barred because challenging the jurisdiction of the circuit court can be done at any time. The circuit court agreed with this but denied the motion on its merits. The Second District Court of Appeal affirmed, but on the basis that the motion was not timely. This conflicts with at least four decisions in three other Courts of Appeal. Its determination that OSP’s lack of jurisdiction would not in any case divest the circuit court of jurisdiction also conflicted with other courts, so it certified the issues to the Florida Supreme Court.
On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court upheld both of the Second District’s decisions. It agreed with Carbajal that under Florida law, the OSP was not authorized to prosecute his crimes, which all arose in Lee County. However, it said, any such defect does not take subject matter jurisdiction to prosecute Carbajal away from the circuit court. Regardless of the prosecuting agency, the applicable circuit court is the correct place to bring felony drug charges. Under Florida law, defects in charging information are not enough to void a conviction, the court noted. Nor did the defects mislead Carbajal in a way that reduced his ability to defend himself. Such a mistake may be voidable in a timely challenge, the court added, but Carbajal’s challenge came years after the conviction. He effectively conceded that the motion was untimely, the court said, and thus he cannot challenge it now. Thus, the high court upheld the Second District.
As a Miami-Dade drug crimes defense lawyer, I recommend that all defendants consult an experienced attorney when they first realize they will face charges. It’s not clear whether Carbajal had representation during his original charges and nolo contendere plea. But as a rule, an attorney should be able to spot potential issues such as a lack of jurisdiction by the prosecuting agency. Retaining an experienced attorney would also help with meeting deadlines for an appeal or other court deadlines, an essential part of any criminal case. Particularly in cases involving serious drug charges — which carry high sentences for political reasons — it’s vital to talk to a south Florida narcotics criminal defense attorney as early as possible so you can start building your defense.