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Three Fort Lauderdale men were reportedly arrested on the other coast, accused of committing organized burglary with ties to a nationwide identity theft ring. purse.jpg

Our Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers understand that authorities have dubbed these defendants members of a group called the “Felony Lane gang,” and have indicated connections between those arrested and multiple other identity-theft defendants based out of Fort Lauderdale.

It’s not clear whether these individuals were part of an actual gang, or whether that’s simply what authorities have chosen to call them, based on the similarity of their alleged crimes. That will be an important distinction for defense attorneys to focus on as the case moves forward, because Florida crimes committed for the furtherance of a gang result in stiffer penalties, per Florida Statute 874.04.

This case in particular stems from a vehicle burglary in Naples. Media reports indicate that the alleged victim parked her vehicle at a local veterinarian’s office and walked inside, leaving her purse behind. That’s when officials say one of the three men grabbed her purse from her unlocked vehicle and sped off.

The three were stopped by police a short time later and arrested.

That act alone would be considered burglary under Florida Statute 810.02. Burglary is defined as simply entering a home, business, structure or vehicle with the intent to commit an offense. So prosecutors don’t have to show that you necessarily took anything or did anything other than enter without permission with the intent of committing a crime.

Police seem to have evidence in this case of actual theft, as investigators found not only the woman’s stolen purse in the suspects’ vehicle, but also wigs, other “burglary tools,” stolen identification and bank addresses punched into the GPS.

Investigators are saying that the greater goal of this group is not so much a purse snatching here or there, but rather an organized effort of identity theft. Authorities say the wigs were intended to disguise the individuals as they entered the bank drive thru.

Individuals of this same operation have reportedly been arrested in Lincoln, Nebraska for nearly identical crimes.

It’s not clear in exactly what way these individuals are connected to one another, aside from the type of crimes they allegedly committed. However, if investigators could prove it was all part of a greater plan to benefit one operation, then gang penalty enhancements could be applied. It does not appear that has been done so far.

A gang enhancement is essentially the imposition of increased penalties for anyone who commits an offense in furtherance of a criminal gang.

So for example, a second-degree misdemeanor can actually be bumped up to a first-degree misdemeanor if prosecutors can show your actions were on behalf of the gang. If you’ve been charged with a first-degree misdemeanor, gang enhancements raise the charge to a third-degree felony. Same goes for every crime associated with a gang, all the way up to a first-degree felony. These are serious felonies that are already punishable by 30 years in prison. With a gang enhancement, you could be sentenced to life behind bars.

The RICO Act is another option under federal law. Used mostly in organized crime cases, the act permits for enhancement penalties, including civil forfeiture.
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A Fort Lauderdale teenager stands accused of beating a female classmate so badly outside their middle school that she suffered permanent brain damage. balance2.jpg

His defense team plans to argue that the defendant should not be held responsible for his actions because he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after his older brother committed suicide. The alleged victim reportedly provoked him with statements made in text messages, in one telling him to “go visit” his dead brother.

Fort Lauderdale juvenile defense attorneys know that arguing insanity due to PTSD will bring up a mired of complex legal and medical issues. Yet mental health must always be a focus of the justice system — particularly in cases where a juvenile is involved. In this case, it may be one of the best options available to attorneys, given the purported evidence against the 15-year-old defendant, who is charged with first-degree attempted murder.

In cases where there is a great deal of evidence indicating guilt – and the defendant admits to having committed the crime – plea bargaining is usually the route that makes the most sense. In many cases, a skilled attorney can negotiate pleas to lesser charges or a lesser penalty for the same charge, during the plea-bargain process.

Generally speaking, insanity should be a rare defense, reserved for those cases when it is legitimate and other defense options have been considered and rejected.

Florida Statute 775.027 allows for a defense of insanity when the following criteria are met:

1. The person had a mental infirmity, defect or disease;
2. Because of that condition, the defendant did not know what he or she was doing or the consequences;

3. Or, the defendant knew what he or she was doing, but did not know that what he or she was doing was wrong.

So not only must you show that you suffered from mental illness, you further have to show that you either didn’t know what you were doing or didn’t know what you were doing was wrong.

That’s a high bar.

The way the criminal justice system is set up, it is incumbent upon prosecutors to prove guilt in a case. However, with an insanity defense, the burden of proof is essentially shifts to the defense. That means that it is up to your attorney to prove that you shouldn’t be held responsible for your actions. As an affirmative defense, you are admitting to committing the underlying crime.

While we as a society have come a long way in terms of our understanding and acceptance of mental illness as a real and legitimate problem, insanity defenses are still difficult sells to juries.

The defense attorneys will likely rely heavily upon testimony from the medical experts who diagnosed the defendant. As a juvenile, he faces up to 50 years in prison if convicted. Even if he is found not guilty by reason of insanity, he could still spend years confined in a state mental institution.

While PTSD as a defense may or may not be effective in this case, we will undoubtedly be seeing more examples of it as our soldiers continue to return home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In situations where someone has endured the horrors of combat, such a defense may have a better chance of success.
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Our West Palm Beach criminal defense lawyers know that the federal Fair Sentencing Act, according to 18 U.S.c. 3553(a)(4)(A)(ii), lowers the sentencing guidelines for certain drug offenses in Palm Beach County and across the country. fistbump.jpg

However, the question before the U.S. Supreme Court recently was whether the lowered mandatory minimums were applicable to defendants who committed their alleged crimes or were convicted prior to the August 3, 2010 effective date. Whether the law can be applied retroactively is a huge legal issue that could impact thousands of court cases in Florida and across the nation.

In Dorsey v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court justices in a 5-4 decision vacated an earlier rulings by both the district and Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which had held that offenders whose crimes were committed prior to the effective date were not eligible to have their sentences reduced according to the law.

What this means is that the new, lowered mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines are applicable to individuals whose crimes were committed prior to the enactment of The Fair Sentencing Act, but who were sentenced after that date.

As the justices noted, failure to do so would essentially create a disproportionate status quo of sentencing that would be inherently unfair.

To offer a little background:

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 established an unfair system by which those convicted of selling crack cocaine were given sentences that were sometimes 100 times higher than those convicted of selling powder cocaine. This disparity, for the same drug, often manifested itself along racial lines, where African American drug dealers were more likely to be selling the rock form, versus Caucasian drug dealers who were more likely to sell the powder form.

This resulted in the Congressional amendment to this act in the form of The Fair Sentencing Act, which was passed in August 2010 and became effective that November.

This act essentially increased the amount of the drug an offender could have before triggering that automatic five or 10-year sentence. A five-year sentence would accompany conviction on sale of between 28 grams, instead of 5 grams, while a 10-year sentence would accompany conviction on sale between 280 grams, rather than 50. Sentencing for powder cocaine remained the same. A disparity still exists, but it is now 18-to-1, compared to 100-to-1.

At issue here were two men – one who was convicted of selling 53 grams of crack cocaine in 2007, triggering the 10-year minimum, and another convicted of selling 5.5 grams in 2008, triggering the 5-year minimum.

Both men were convicted prior to the passage of the amended sentencing act. However, they were not sentenced until after it had passed.

While both the district and appellate courts held that the new sentencing guidelines were not applicable, the high court disagreed. In the majority opinion, justices determined that by applying these new minimum standards to everyone sentenced after the passage of the act, the court system could ensure a smooth and clear-cut transition into the new rules.
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A report by the Sun-Sentinel indicates that fewer West Palm Beach traffic tickets are being issued to motorists – and the trend is being seen throughout the state.traffic.jpg

Still, our West Palm Beach traffic ticket defense lawyers know that doesn’t mean those who are cited are less likely to win in court if they chose to fight it.

The truth is, courts – as well as law enforcement agencies – are working with fewer resources than ever before. That means you may even have a better chance of winning – if you have a defense lawyer.

Officials in Florida can’t pinpoint one specific factor that has led to the decline in tickets, though they indicate it may have a great deal to do with the economy. As mentioned before, police are working with fewer resources. That may mean that more of their efforts are focused toward critical crime-fighting assignments.

Other possible reasons may be the fact that there have been a number of sky-high spikes in gas prices, which means there are overall fewer drivers on the road.

And lastly, it could be that there are tougher fines than ever before for traffic violators who are caught in West Palm Beach and Broward counties. Drivers are generally being more careful.

The newspaper reports that in Palm Beach County, police issued nearly 432,000 traffic tickets in 2008. In 2010, they issued about 398,000 – a drop of nearly 8 percent. Then last year, about 370,000 tickets were handed out – another 7 percent decrease from the year before, and about a 15 percent dip from four years earlier.

In Broward County last year, the numbers were up slightly last year – but only after dramatic drops ever year prior to that since 2007. The report indicates that troopers and sheriff’s deputies there handed out about 482,000 tickets in 2011 – which was up about 1.5 percent from the previous year, when there were about 475,000 tickets – but still down about 15 percent from 2007, when there were roughly 565,000 tickets issued.

We’re seeing the same sort of trend across Florida. Five years ago, there were about 5.2 million traffic tickets issued to Florida motorists. Compare that to 2011, when there were about 4.3 million.

Unsurprisingly, traffic crashes are also down. Less money in people’s pockets means they’re less likely to be on the road on outings to shop, eat out or enjoy other entertainment.

But perhaps another reason why the citations are fewer is because officers know that more people are fighting them in court.

This was the theory posed by our own Traffic Defense Attorney Doug Leifert, who was quoted in the article as saying that the increases in the amount of traffic fines mean that people are less willing to simply pay it regardless of whether they were in the right, as they might have been inclined to do before the recession.

“They’re steep and they’re due in 30 days,” Leifert was quoted as saying. “…It may be the total number of citations is down, but the number of people going to court is up. More people are willing to go to court because of the cost.”

Points on your driver’s license can also lead to license suspension and skyrocketing insurance premiums — two more reasons to defend yourself when facing traffic charges in South Florida.
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Our experienced Broward criminal defense lawyers have long contended that while there are some fantastic attorneys employed by the public defender’s office, it’s sometimes akin to rolling the dice. glossy.jpg

If you require a defense for a Broward felony charge and you qualify for a public defender, you don’t have a say in who you get. He or she will be expected to perform to the minimum standards – but that’s it. When it comes to your freedom, that’s probably not a gamble you want to take.

And now, the situation may have just worsened.

New rules are set to go into effect July 1 that will curb the amount that public defenders are paid by the state.

So for example, a man in Miami-Dade had been facing life in prison. He was appointed a public defender. That attorney spent about 335 hours on this case, which worked out to about $25,000 in legal bills. The jury ended up acquitting the man. But under the new rules, that same attorney would be paid about $2,000 total for his work. That breaks down to less than $6 an hour. To give you an idea of how bad that is, Florida’s minimum wage is $7.67 per hour.

What that means is that there will be fewer public defenders willing to take on cases. One attorney, speaking to a reporter with The Miami Herald, was quoted as saying that it is “fundamentally unfair to make a lawyer choose between his own bottom line and the freedom of his client.”

But that’s what’s happening with this measure, which was slipped into a larger bill in March. The idea was to curb the ballooning public defender fees funded by taxpayers. In theory, we can understand, but the subsequent side effect of that is that fewer quality, skilled lawyers are going to be willing to take on these cases. That means the chances of your criminal defense even meeting the minimal standards is reduced.

The Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is planning to challenge this rule, but the legal battle could take some time.

Essentially, there is a public defender’s office, but a number of potential defendants must be sent to the Regional Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel. However, there are a lot of times that they will declare a conflict as well. In that case, a judge appoints a private attorney from a pool in the area. These are lawyers who are typically paid a flat rate, but they can ask for more – up to $75 – if it’s necessary. If it’s a complex case, it could take years. They also aren’t paid until it’s concluded.

This measure has made it so that the pool of lawyers agree to that flat rate, and can’t make additional requests.

So let’s say you have a complex murder case that could take two-plus years of intensive preparation. It can be difficult enough for a firm to absorb that cost during those two years. Now you’re going to pay the attorneys $5.99 an hour?

Even fiscally conservative Republican lawmakers agree that for a lawyer to earn $2,000 on a first-degree murder case that could take years of preparation is “ridiculous.” But they’re waiting on the Florida bar to come up with a better solution.

In the meantime, you are far better off, if you’re able, hiring a private attorney on your own.
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Happy Independence Day.

No better gift for troubled teens than that of hope and freedom bestowed by the recent Supreme Court decision, forbidding juvenile offenders from being sentenced to life without parole. Florida has been an unfortunate leader in trying kids as adults, and in handing out long sentences meant to be punitive rather than rehabilitative.

Broward juvenile defense attorneys had been anxiously awaiting the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the legality of life prison terms for juveniles. eyeblue.jpg

Now, the court has made its decision: Juvenile crimes in Broward and throughout the country simply can’t be treated the same way as adult crimes. Mandatory life sentences for juveniles are now a thing of the past.

The issue was one that sharply divided the justices, who were split along theological lines. But you can’t judge a crime committed by a juvenile through the exact lens you would an adult. And simply trying them as adults doesn’t make them adults.

Now, this doesn’t mean that a juvenile CAN’T be sentenced to life in prison for murders that are considered especially heinous. But what this ruling does is say that sentence can’t be imposed as a minimum mandatory, as it can for adults.

This decision is in line with other rulings the court has recently made involving juvenile offenders. Those include taking the death penalty off the table for juveniles.

The four conservative justices, in expressing their dissent, argued that minimum mandatory sentences for certain crimes were appropriate. The example given was the possibility of someone just a few months shy of 18 who guns down dozens of students and teachers or bombs a crowded shopping mall.

However, first of all, crimes such as those are so rare in their occurrence that it would seem unwise to set wide-reaching legal precedent based on the slim chance of their occurrence. Secondly, there is nothing about this decision that bars a teen from being handed a life without parole sentence. It merely states that it can’t be mandatory.

Prior to this decision, the federal government, as well as 26 states, had allowed mandatory life sentences for certain types of murder to be applied to juveniles as young as 14 years-old.

In fact, it was one of these cases that sparked the ruling. In that situation, two 14-year-olds were convicted and sentenced to life without parole in the robbery and murder of a store clerk in Arkansas. The case is Miller v. Alabama. Only one of the teens actually fired the fatal shot. However, Arkansas law, similar to Florida’s, contends that if someone is killed in the commission of a felony to which you are a party, you can be held responsible for their murder.

In an encouraging side note, Justices Breyer and Sotomayor said that they would have taken it a step further and removed the possibility that a juvenile who did not actually commit the murder could be given a life sentence at all. While that was not the issue before the court at this time, it gives us some insight for the discussion that may be had when a case like that does ultimately and inevitably make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
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Broward jail facilities are brimming, and as our Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers understand, it may have a lot to with increases in arrests for everything from prostitution to robberies. cagedbird.jpg

What’s not entirely certain is whether that increase in Broward arrests is due to more crimes actually being committed or in more aggressive police tactics.

It’s probably a combination of both. On one hand, you’ve got a tanking economy, and this inevitably leads to more property crimes. You also in a recession are going to have greater rates of depression, which inevitably leads to more drug use and the multitude of crimes that accompany it.

But on the flip side, you’ve got high-cost police agencies that are constantly under scrutiny by local governments looking for ways to trim. If the department can justify their current annual budget by touting the number of arrests made (without regard for the strength of those case or subsequent convictions) they figure the better their chances of at least maintaining the status quo.

Then you factor in that jail stays are becoming longer, and there just might not be room at the Inn. An experienced defense attorney can often use jail crowding to your advantage in a number of ways. Getting reasonable bond, pre-trial release, and sentencing options my all be influenced by the number of jail beds available.

The trouble for the county is that it literally can not afford to go over capacity, which currently stands at 5,200. Overcrowding in Broward has been a problem for many years. A lawsuit filed by an inmate back in the late 1970s resulted in a federal crack down. Part of that was a federal consent decree – still in place today – that charges the county fines of $1,000 for every day that the jail is over its maximum capacity. It’s so strict that federal monitors check in weekly with the jail.

A county judge told the Sun-Sentinel that those federal monitors come to his courtroom at least once every single year and inquire as to why this inmate or that inmate wasn’t given bond.

And yet, jail stays are up an average of four days. The average cost to house an inmate stands at roughly $120, and they each stay for about 32 days. Compare that to last year, when 28 days was the average.

The jail’s current population this year is around 4,500. Last year, it was about 115 less, on average. In fact, it’s about 7 percent higher than where jail officials like to keep it, which is at 85 percent.

So what does this mean for you if you’ve been arrested in Fort Lauderdale?

First, it means that public defenders are going to be overworked and underpaid. If there’s any possibility of pooling resources and money to hire a private attorney, it’s going to be a worthwhile investment in your future.

Secondly, the attention the issue has garnered from first-appearance Judge John Hurley, who said he and his staff would work to lower jail population rates by reducing sentences for minor offenders or allowing them to leave with credit for time served.

This is certainly encouraging news, but there’s always sort of an ebb and flow to issues like this. Once it fades from the headlines, no doubt the numbers will inch up again.

That’s why you need an attorney committed to fighting to have your bond, charges and sentences reduced.
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