Mandatory Minimums and Marissa Alexander

As Palm Beach and Broward County criminal defense lawyers, we’re all too familiar with the unfortunate case of Marissa Alexander, the Florida woman thrown in prison for firing a warning shot in self-defense.
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Back in 2010, Ms. Alexander fired a warning shot near her estranged husband who had been threatening her (and had a history of domestic violence). Although nobody was injured, and because of archaic mandatory minimum gun laws, Ms. Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison — the jury deliberated for a mere 12 minutes.

For Ms. Alexander, the criminal justice system failed to deliver justice. It did prove effective in one significant way, however: it shed a light on the ugly reality that comes with mandatory minimum gun laws in the Sunshine State.

With the George Zimmerman case, the nation began to fixate on Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. Does it make sense? Is it useful? According to the judge in Ms. Alexander’s trial, it didn’t apply; while the Stand Your Ground law removes your requirement to “stand down,” it does not give you the right to remove yourself from a dangerous situation, arm yourself, and return, which is what the prosecution in this case said happened.

Still, the judge’s denial of the Stand Your Ground defense was hardly the key injustice in this case — that title belongs to Florida’s mandatory minimum gun laws, which are broad in nature and allow for zero consideration of particular facts of a case when determining a sentence. In our state, if you use a gun in the commission of certain types of felonies, you are subject to mandatory minimum sentencing. As our Palm Beach and Broward County criminal defense lawyers at the Law Offices of Leifert & Leifert know, simply having the gun with you when you commit a felony — including aggravated assault — subjects you to a minimum prison sentence of ten years. If the firearm is discharged during the felony, tack on another decade to that — you face a minimum of 20 years in prison.

Of course, the firearm was discharged during the incident involving Ms. Alexander and her estranged husband. As such, the jury had no choice but to sentence her to 20 years in prison. The fault lies with the law as it exists on the books.

Because of a technicality, Ms. Alexander was entitled to a retrial. Instead of going to trial again, she accepted a plea deal with prosecutors in which she would plead guilty to the charges against her but receive a drastically reduced sentence from the one initially handed down. Basically, she was let out of prison after serving three years — a very long time, but a lot less than the 20 she faced otherwise. As Florida criminal defense lawyer Mark O’Mara points out, Ms. Alexander is hardly a “free” woman. In order to get herself out of prison, she had to agree to be a convicted felon; as such, she has lost her right to vote and she’s essentially lost the chance at securing a good job.

Mandatory minimum laws ruin lives; they may very well be a perfect example of when a solution is just as bad as the problem it strives to solve. Mandatory minimum gun laws take away all of the discretion from the judge in determining appropriate sentences; instead, the discretion is given to prosecutors who, by choice of charges, determine the sentence a defendant faces. That isn’t justice.

If you have any questions about mandatory minimum gun laws in Florida, or if you’ve been arrested for or charged with a crime in Palm Beach, Broward or Miami-Dade County, please contact our criminal defense lawyers by calling 1-888-5-DEFEND (1-888-533-3363). We look forward to assisting you.

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