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How Violent Crimes are Classified and Sentenced Under Florida Law

Violent crime rates are on the rise in Tallahassee, according to Tallahassee Police Department incident reports. A tabulation of these incidents by online watchdog Tallahassee Reports determined that local police investigated 1,295 violent criminal offenses in 2023, a 13.6% increase over 2022’s 1,104 number.

Violent crimes in Florida are broadly categorized to include actual harm, threatened harm, and reasonable probability of harm. When police and prosecutors classify a committed crime as “violent” under the law, convicted offenders face much stiffer sentencing than handed down for convictions deemed non-violent. With the law’s presumption of harm language, some offenders face a decade or more in prison even if there was no intent to cause harm and no one experienced actual harm during the commission of the offense.

With expertise defending Tallahassee-area defendants who’ve been charged with felonies and violent crimes, Cowhey + Ward Attorneys at Law understands the nuances that differentiate the prosecution of alleged violent crimes from non-violent ones. While actual harm is generally apparent, threatened harm or the perceived possibility of being harmed is much more subjective, though the onus is on the defendant to prove its absence. Additionally, some violent crimes can be justified under Florida’s self-defense statutes. Let’s further review how Florida law addresses violent crime and self-defense.

Violent Crimes in Florida as a Felony Versus Misdemeanor Offense

With limited exceptions, courts prosecute violent crimes in Florida as felonies. The most notable exceptions are simple assault and battery, which are charged as misdemeanor offenses. As a misdemeanor offense, assault is defined as an intentional, unlawful threat to harm another, provided the offender can carry out the threat and the victim fears for their immediate safety. With misdemeanor battery, the offender intentionally initiates physical contact against an unwilling victim or intentionally causes bodily harm. Despite the “harm,” misdemeanor battery is not classified as a felony violent offense.

The degree of harm is considered “violence” with aggravated assault and/or battery charges, which are first- through third-degree felonies, depending on the level of harm. Aggravated assault is characterized as assaulting someone with a weapon or while committing another felony. As with the misdemeanor charge, aggravated assault does not have to cause injury; the threat or victim’s fear of harm are sufficient grounds for prosecution. Aggravated battery charges apply if there is significant bodily harm, disability, disfigurement, deadly weapon usage, or if the victim is pregnant.

Numerous other crimes are classified as violent—and felonious—under Florida law. While the classification is evident in many offenses—murder, manslaughter, armed robbery, terrorism, rape, and kidnapping—some offenses that may not involve actual intentional violence fall under the classification, too, including:

  • Arson
  • Robbery
  • Sexual assault
  • Gun sales and distribution
  • Vehicular manslaughter
  • Terrorist threats
  • Various weapons offenses

As felonies, violent crimes carry harsh penalties that range from a maximum of five years imprisonment for a third-degree felony to 30 years imprisonment for a first-degree one. Certain violent offenses, like first-degree murder and sexual battery on a child under that causes injuries, are further categorized as “capital” or “life” felonies. Capital felonies are punishable by the death penalty or life in prison without parole. As the name implies, life penalties carry a life imprisonment sentence, though there is a chance for parole. The degree of violence occurring during the commission of any felony offense also serves as an aggravating factor that increases the likelihood of harsh sentencing.

Inherent Violence of Guns Explains Florida’s “10-20-Life” Law

When guns are used in the commission of any crime, they threaten harm and increase the probability of harm, if not cause actual harm. Thus, Florida has adopted the “10-20-Life” mandatory sentencing law for violent offenses that involve guns. Any offender carrying a firearm during the commission of a crime faces a minimum 10-year prison sentence. Using a firearm during the criminal act carries a mandatory 20-year sentence, and if the offender shoots someone, they face a 25-year-to-life compulsory sentence.

Excusing the Use of Violence and/or Guns in Self-Defense Cases

Florida’s law excuses violent acts and/or using a gun in what might otherwise be a crime when done for self-defense. Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law—Florida Statute Section 776.012—allows a person to use deadly force without retreating from the threat posed by another. Lawful self-defense must be based on a reasonable belief that the use of force is necessary to prevent another person from committing a forcible felony or to prevent them from causing death or significant injury to the defender or others.

Although self-defense is a commonly used defense tactic in many violent crime charges, Florida law limits its use. For example, a defendant is not allowed to argue self-defense if they instigated the violence or were committing another violent act at the time of the incident.

Felony Violent Crimes Cannot be Sealed or Expunged

Under Florida law, those convicted of violent felonies cannot have the record of their conviction sealed or expunged. The best way to avoid the harsh penalties and permanent record that comes with a violent crime conviction in Florida is to secure the best criminal defense possible. Skilled criminal defense lawyers are adept at strategizing defenses that can lead to dismissals, acquittals, or downgraded charges. When viable, a competent defense lawyer can also raise an effective self-defense claim.

The criminal defense attorneys at Cowhey + Ward have successfully defended many Tallahassee-area clients against serious violent crime charges. Cowhey + Ward lawyers thoroughly review each client’s case details to develop a proactive defense designed to secure the best outcome possible. To learn how Cowhey + Ward can help defend you from violent crime charges, contact our Tallahassee-based office today at (850) 222-1000.

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