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March 7, 2014

Florida Supreme Court hears arguments on Miller retroactivity and application

As effectively reported in this lengty local article, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday heard arguments on whether a teenage murderer given mandatory LWOP over a decade ago can now secure a resentencing because of the US Supreme Court's Miller ruling.  Here are the basics:

Rebecca Lee Falcon, now 32, represents a group of more than 200 Florida prisoners serving life without the possibility of parole for murders committed while they were under the age of 18.

The issue before the state's highest court is whether a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling — which held that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional — should apply since Falcon and the other prisoners' sentences were final before the nation's highest court ruled.

The immediate matter is whether the ruling in Miller vs. Alabama is retroactive.  But it also represents a broader issue at play in the Florida courts and state Legislature as judges and lawmakers struggle with conforming the state's laws with a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have determined juveniles need to be treated differently than adults in the justice system....

Karen Gottlieb, a lawyer representing Falcon, argued that the Miller ruling should be retroactive since it represented a change in Florida law of "fundamental significance," when the federal court held mandatory life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutionally cruel and unusual and should be uncommon.  "Post-conviction relief must be afforded to avoid obvious injustice," Gottlieb said.

Gottlieb noted that unlike adult prisoners who face the death penalty and receive extensive sentencing reviews, where many factors are weighed, the 200 juveniles — with mandatory life sentences after 1994 — received no review.   "We have every child sentenced to life without parole in these cases with no review of any factor about their youth and the attendant circumstances, their lack of judgment and impetuousness, their maturity, the prospect for rehabilitation and reform, the outside influences, peer influences," Gottlieb said. "None of that has been considered."

Trisha Meggs Pate, an appellate lawyer representing the state, argued against retroactivity, saying the federal ruling did not abolish life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder but only rejected mandatory sentencing.  "It is not a substantive change in law that forbids the state from imposing a new sentence," Pate said. "It's not a categorical ban against life without parole sentencing.  She may go back to the trial court and face the exact same punishment."

Pate also raised the issue of the burden on the state courts if the more than 200 prisoners had to return to court for resentencing hearings.  "You're going to have to have witnesses. We're going to have to have facts about the crime scene, how the crime occurred, what happened, medical examiners," Pate said.  "And some of these cases are 20 years old. They have been final for a long time."...

[Certain] justices seemed troubled by the prospect of letting the Miller ruling apply to cases that were under appeal at the time of the ruling and for future cases but not being applied to the 200 older cases.  "So we just turn our backs on the fact that there are 200, even if you say 500, young people who are sitting in jail forever, and we just turn (our) backs on that when the Supreme Court has said clearly that that is not an appropriate sentence if they have not had an opportunity to have their situation looked at individually?" Justice Peggy Quince asked.

The justices seemed to move past the issue of retroactivity and were asking questions of both sides on what procedures Florida should use in sentencing juveniles under the Miller rulings....  The issue has been complicated by the fact that the state abolished parole in 1994, although the system is still used for prisoners who were incarcerated before that time.  And the Florida Legislature has been unable to pass a new law taking into account Miller and other court rulings that impact the sentencing of juveniles. Bills are now pending in the 2014 session on those issues.

As noted in this recent post, the Michigan Supreme Court also heard arguments yesterday on Miller retroactivity issues.  This coincidence sets up an interesting natural experiment concerning which state supreme court has reach a ruling on this importand and challenging issue first.  

Importantly, the Michigan Supreme Court has the benefit of not having to sort completely through how Miller resentencings can and should be done because the Michigan legislature has already enacted a Miller fix statute.  In contrast, the failure to date of Florida's legislature to formally respond to Miller essentially forces the Florida Supreme Court to have to make even more hard decisions about how Miller can and should get implemented.  

March 7, 2014 at 10:22 AM | Permalink

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Comments

Though I am not usually one who is for more lenient sentences, I feel that it is common sense that the Miller ruling ought to be retroactive. I understand the point made by the State: that even if some of these individuals were re sentenced they would still get LWOP, but the fact remains that the reason the 200 people are serving LWOP is because it was mandatory. Even if it is deemed that only 1 of those 200 individuals would not have received LWOP "but for" the mandatory sentencing structure, the review would still be worthwhile.Sure it would be a hassle to go back and get witnesses and review the crime scene, but we are talking about peoples lives here. In my opinion common sense deems that when you have an unconstitutional sentencing structure in place, all the sentenced dished out by the unconstitutional sentencing structure ought to be, at the very least, reviewed. As to the question of whether the ruling presents a "substantial change" in the law, I would argue that anytime you have a sentencing procedure which has been used hundreds of times in your state deemed unconstitutional by the Nation's High Court, a substantial change has occurred. To argue, as the State does, that this is unsubstantial seems to me to be almost a throw away line they have to say in order for their case to make sense.

Chris LaRocco
Sentencing Law Class

Posted by: Chris LaRocco(Student) | Mar 7, 2014 2:55:49 PM

Chris. What were you doing at 14. On second thought don't answerthat. Many of these fellows were paid assassins for organized crime gangs. Shouldn't wecheck on that before loosing them on the public, most often poor neighborhoods without political clout.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Mar 7, 2014 8:10:58 PM

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