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Disabled Veteran's Case Calls Into Question Florida Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws

by Brad R. Schlesinger, published

Just when Florida criminal justice policy and sentencing outcomes seem to have reached a zenith of ridiculousness, the Sunshine state continues to disappoint. The culprit once again is Florida’s 10-20-Life law, as highlighted by Families Against Mandatory Minimums:

Ronald Thompson is a 100% disabled veteran who spent 14 years in the Army (1966-1980). After his service, Thompson remained active in veterans’ affairs. In addition to acting as a Deputy Representative for AMVETS, Thompson accumulated 5,532 hours volunteering at the VA hospital in Lake City, Florida, primarily acting as recreational therapy coordinator at the VA’s nursing home. Thompson was 62-years old in September 2009 when he visited a friend of his, an elderly woman in Keystone Heights, Florida, at the woman’s daughter’s home. During his visit, his friend’s 17 year-old grandson, who had been violent toward her in the past, came by with three friends, and wanted to go into his mother’s home. Having been instructed by her daughter not to let him into the house, Thompson’s friend refused them entry. Her grandson began yelling and cursing at his grandmother. Events escalated to the point where Mr. Thompson felt his friend was in danger. He grabbed his pistol (for which he had a conceal-carry license) and fired two warning shots into the ground to scare off the 17-year old. Thompson was charged with four counts of aggravated assault by State Attorney Angela Corey. He turned down a three-year plea offer, believing that, due to his failing health, he would be dead in three years. Mr. Thompson has diabetes, high blood pressure, and he'd had a heart attack. He also believed that if a jury heard all the facts they'd acquit him, particularly in light of the grandson’s history of violence toward his grandmother. Thompson was convicted. However, the sentencing judge in his case, Judge John Skinner, refused to impose the 20-year mandatory minimum required by Florida’s 10-20-Life law, calling the sentence unconstitutional and a "crime in itself." Judge Skinner imposed a three-year mandatory minimum instead. The prosecutor appealed the sentence and the appeals court overturned Judge Skinner's sentence, ruling that the 20-year mandatory minimum must be imposed.

Even though the encounter was non-violent and there was no intent to kill on Thompson’s part, the aggravated assault charges trigger the 10-20-Life law, which serves as a sentencing escalator for a slew of felonies involving firearms. The way the law works is, if an individual charged and convicted of a felony brandished, but did not discharge a firearm, a mandatory sentence of at least 10-years in prison is required. For simply discharging a firearm – even if no one is shot or there is no intent to kill – in the commission of the felony, a conviction results in a mandatory minimum 20-year sentence. And if discharging the weapon in the course of a felony causes death or great bodily harm to anyone, a sentence of no less than 25 years and no more than life imprisonment is mandated. But that’s not all. For any of these instances, the law does not restrict a court from applying “a longer sentence of incarceration as authorized by law in addition to the minimum mandatory sentence, or from imposing a sentence of death….”

In response to the sentence imposed on Thompson, “FAMM Florida Project Director Greg Newburn called on Governor Rick Scott’s ‘Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection’ to include Florida’s ‘10-20-Life’ gun sentencing law in their review,” stating that by failing to reform the law, “the right…of law-abiding Floridians to practice self-defense will be chilled by the threat of decades in prison.” The task force was originally created to examine the Stand Your Ground law in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting.

The 10-20-Life law, as well as other mandatory minimum laws that provide for fixed sentences, is a usurpation of the role of the judicial branch and essentially makes the judge a viewing member of the gallery during the sentencing process. It also subverts the role of the jury, as jurors are “not told of a defendant's possible sentence at trial so as to not influence their sole responsibility of determining guilt or innocence.” The world is clouded by shades of gray, and every case that comes before a court has its own unique circumstances that no previously passed piece of legislation can foretell.

Signed into law in 1999, 10-20-Life was meant to decrease the crime rate and apply to violent, repeat, chronic offenders – not people like Thompson, who either have no criminal record and/or simply fired a warning shot. This attempted simplistic solution is a relic of the “tough on crime” era of the 1980’s, which led to the notably disastrous Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 (21 U.S.C. § 841) – establishing the mandatory minimum penalties that are a hallmark of federal drug cases today.

And it’s not as if 10-20-Life has had any affect on crime in Florida. University of Texas at Dallas criminologist Alex Piquero examined the law’s affect on the crime rate in a study published back in 2006. Piquero found that the law was essentially a dud and the drop in the state’s crime rate was “more likely attributable to a national decline in crime that began before the law went into effect….” While supporters of the law touted it at the time as the reason for the significant decrease in crime, Piquero throws cold water on the theory, stating, “our study shows that crime was already dropping in Florida, as it was in all states, before the law was passed.” To add insult to injury, Piquero notes the law is likely an economic loser as well, as these kinds of laws “actually end up being more expensive because you’re putting offenders in incarcerated facilities for very long periods of time, which costs millions of dollars….”

For independent voters the message is clear. Outside of a handful of politicians, these kinds of “tough on crime” laws are fully embraced by our political duopoly and accepted as national bipartisan consensus. Rather than actually grapple with the unintended consequences of legislation of this nature and the serious problems presented by crime, drug, and justice issues, our two political parties are content to ignore them as political losers. By supporting one of the two major political parties, serious attempts at reforming these nefarious laws and policies are an exercise in futility. Those outliers who stand firm against the drug war and the policies of mass incarceration then become ever more marginalized by the establishment.

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