Friday, November 9, 2012

A Reasonable Hypothesis of Innocence

The law is well settled in Florida that in a criminal trial when the evidence presented by the State is wholly circumstantial, the state must present evidence which contradicts every reasonable hypothesis of innocence in order to sustain a conviction. If the state does not do this a motion for judgment of acquittal must be granted. All too often the state utilizes and relies upon impermissibly stacked inferences against an accused to suggest guilt. For instance, in a trial for driving under the influence of alcohol, because each and every police officer in the state has taken a special course, the evidence presented will be that the defendant's eyes were bloodshot or glassy, the speech was slurred, the gait was staggered and there was a strong odor of alcohol emanating from the defendant or the defendant's breath. These rotely memorized matters are commonly written into every police report throughout the state, often without regard to the actual truth. Invariably, the defendant failed to maintain a single lane while driving or there can be any one of a host of other reasons for a traffic stop. Once the stop is made, the officer subjectively determines the factors which infer guilt from a litany of seemingly objective observations. It is not a scientific process, but it will appear to be. It is not a seeking of the truth, but the necessary foundation to a finding of guilt. But our example is just one and the context applies to all criminal prosecutions which employ only circumstantial evidence. The distinction between direct evidence and that which is circumstantial is at the heart of the problem. Only testimony from someone who actually witnessed our defendant consume alcohol and then get behind the wheel and drive would suffice in this example. Although the observations of our officer appear to be direct, they are not. Slurred speech, bloodshot eyes, a staggered gait, and an odor of alcohol are direct evidence of what the officer observed, but these are nothing more than the proof of a chain of circumstances pointing to the commission of the offense, the classic explanation of circumstantial evidence.

"Evidence which furnishes nothing stronger than a suspicion, even though it would tend to justify the suspicion that the defendant committed the crime, it is not sufficient to sustain conviction. It is the actual exclusion of the hypothesis of innocence which clothes circumstantial evidence with the force of proof sufficient to convict. Circumstantial evidence which leaves uncertain several hypotheses, any one of which may be sound and some of which maybe entirely consistent with innocence, is not adequate to sustain a verdict of guilt. Even though the circumstantial evidence is sufficient to suggest a probability of guilt, it is not thereby adequate to support a conviction if it is likewise consistent with a reasonable hypothesis of innocence." Davis v. State, 90 So.2d 629, 631-32 (Fla. 1956).

Our analysis must turn to this defendant, although not required to prove or disprove any fact and the constitutional right to remain silent is absolute, the explanation is that at 2:00 a.m., after performing in a bar for a total of six hours and having been up since 6:00 a.m. the preceding morning, the defendant was exhausted when stopped by the officer. Surely, this negates each and every circumstance which lead the officer to suspect a crime. Fortunately, this defendant refuses all sobriety tests. So, there is no evidence except the officers testimony. 

Tell me what you think. Should the court grant a motion for judgment of acquittal, or should the defendant be convicted?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Grand Theft, Defrauding a Financial Institution, and Double Jeopardy

The Supreme Court of Florida and each of the District Courts of Appeal have ruled that Grand Theft and Organized Fraud convictions based upon the same conduct violated the Double Jeopardy principles. The applicable rule of law is that offenses are separate if each offense contains an element that the other does not. This is known as the Blockberger analysis and has been codified in Florida Statutes, Section 775.021(4). When each offense does not contain an element that the other does not, they are considered to be the same offense for double jeopardy purposes. The Double Jeopardy clause protects those charged with crime with three separate protections. It guards against being tried twice for the same offense after acquittal. It guards against a second prosecution for the same offense after conviction. And it guards against multiple punishments for the same offense. Analysis is very technical and always complicated.

The question in a recent case is whether Grand Theft and Defrauding a Financial Institution based upon the same conduct, when the Defendants have already been tried and acquitted of Grand Theft, RICO and Conspiracy to Committ RICO, violate Double Jeopardy. The pending prosecution contains one count of aggravated white collar crime, based upon 13 separate instances of defrauding a financial institution, and three counts of defrauding. In 10 of the predicate offenses to count one, the Defendants were previously acquitted in prosecutions for Grand Theft, based upon the same conduct. Grand Theft, in essence, is a deprivation. Defrauding a Financial Institution is deprivation by fraud on a bank. The offenses are the same for double jeopardy purposes. The elements for DFI contain elements that Grand Theft does not. But Grand Theft does not contain an element that DFI does not. Thus, the Defendants cannot be tried again for the same offense.