Law Office of William B. Wynne
2501 Orient Rd., Suite D
Tampa, FL 33619
Law Office of William B. Wynne
2501 Orient Rd., Suite D
Tampa, FL 33619
If you or a loved one has been charged with a felony in Florida, speak to an experienced criminal lawyer as soon as possible. Without proper legal representation, navigating the Florida criminal justice system can be an overwhelming and daunting process. As a Tampa felony lawyer with years of experience, attorney William B. Wynne understands that felony charges are not only serious but also incredibly complex. The government goes to great lengths in these cases, assigning its most trained and experienced prosecutors from the State Attorney’s Office to secure convictions. Accordingly, having a dedicated advocate in your corner is not just an advantage; it’s a necessity.
In Florida, a felony is legally defined as a “criminal offense that is punishable under the laws of this state, or that would be punishable if committed in this state, by death or imprisonment in a state penitentiary,” for a period exceeding one year.1 Felonies in Florida are divided into different categories: Capital Felonies, Life Felonies, and First, Second, and Third-Degree Felonies.2 Each category is assigned a range of potential prison sentences3 and a range of financial penalties.4 For instance, a First-Degree Felony could result in up to 30 years in prison, while a Capital Felony could lead to a life sentence or even the death penalty. Financial penalties for felonies can range from $5,000 to $15,000, depending on the degree of the felony.
Misdemeanors and felonies in Florida have distinct legal processes, penalties, and long-term consequences. Considered less severe than felonies, misdemeanors in Florida are punishable by a maximum term of imprisonment of one year. Misdemeanors are divided into first and second-degree categories and typically include offenses like petty theft, simple assault, and driving with a suspended license.
Felonies are associated with much steeper penalties, including prison terms that may exceed a year. In the gravest instances, felony convictions can result in life sentences or even the imposition of the death penalty. In terms of financial consequences, felonies come with considerably higher fines and more extended probation durations compared to misdemeanors. Criminal acts classified as felonies often encompass severe offenses such as murder, sexual battery, and drug trafficking.
Another significant difference between misdemeanors and felonies lies in the long-term impact of a conviction. While misdemeanors generally do not result in serious lifelong restrictions, a felony conviction can have enduring legal and societal consequences. For example, a felony conviction can severely limit your employment opportunities, prevent you from owning a firearm, and disqualify you from voting in elections.
In Florida, felony cases are not handled by just any court; they fall under the specialized jurisdiction of the Circuit Courts.5 This is in contrast to County Courts, which generally address less severe criminal offenses like misdemeanors and some minor civil cases. Established by Article V of the Florida Constitution, the Circuit Courts are the highest state trial courts in Florida and serve as the primary venues for serious criminal offenses, including felonies. This distinction is codified in Chapter 26 of the Florida Statutes and Rule 2.020 of the Florida Rules of Judicial Administration.
As previously mentioned, felonies are categorized into five distinct classifications. Below are the different types of felony charges in Florida, along with examples and the penalties one might face upon conviction:
While the felony classifications in Florida provide a general framework for the severity of the crime and its associated penalties, they are not the sole determinants of a defendant’s sentence. The Criminal Punishment Code adds another layer of complexity by considering various factors such as prior convictions, use of a weapon, and the severity of harm to the victim. Furthermore, the individual circumstances of the case can wield significant influence over the final sentence. Therefore, despite the predetermined categories and point systems, the outcome can vary considerably based on a myriad of factors.
To ensure consistent and fair sentencing, the Florida Criminal Punishment Code (CPC) was introduced by the Supreme Court in the early 1980s. Prompted by federal guidelines and nationwide sentencing reforms, the CPC aimed to standardize sentencing and eliminate discrepancies caused by judicial discretion. Before its introduction, Florida relied on a parole-based system marked by significant variability, which led to public and judicial concerns over inconsistent sentencing outcomes.
In a bid to resolve long-standing issues of inconsistent sentencing and to create a more standardized approach, Florida introduced its first Sentencing Guidelines in 1983.6 This early version featured nine different worksheets tailored for specific categories of offenses, including murder, sexual crimes, and drug-related offenses. The system utilized a points-based evaluation, factoring in the severity of the current offense, prior criminal record, and other pertinent issues such as victim injury. Although well-intentioned, these 1983 guidelines eventually met with criticism due to several factors. For instance, the advent of the “crack” cocaine epidemic and other unforeseen social developments strained correctional resources, leading to reduced actual time served by offenders. By 1989, it was observed that the average percent of time served had plummeted to 34%, eroding public trust in the judicial system and creating an urgent need for reform.
Moving into the 1990s, the “Safe Streets Act” heralded the arrival of the 1994 Florida Sentencing Guidelines.7 Unlike its predecessor, this framework opted for a more consolidated approach, categorizing non-capital felonies into ten levels of offense severity, each carrying a specific point value. These points would then escalate based on the gravity of the crime, additional offenses, and criminal history. This new structure allowed for more nuanced judicial discretion, particularly when the total score ranged between 40 and 52 points, offering judges a choice between state and non-state prison sanctions. While the 1994 guidelines were a significant improvement, they still bore the weight of some structural inefficiencies, leading to further revisions.
In 1995, the Crime Control Act further refined Florida’s sentencing landscape. The structure from the 1994 guidelines was largely retained, but the point values were recalibrated to offer harsher sanctions for more severe or repetitive offenses. However, these 1995 guidelines faced legal challenges. Specifically, in the Heggs ruling, the Florida Supreme Court deemed the 1995 guidelines unconstitutional, citing a violation of the separation of powers doctrine.8 As a result, these guidelines were considered invalid for offenses committed between October 1, 1995, and May 24, 1997, but remained in effect for offenses occurring between May 25, 1997, and September 30, 1998.
The Criminal Punishment Code (CPC), effective for offenses committed on or after October 1, 1998, succeeded the repealed sentencing guidelines. While retaining some elements of structured sentencing, the CPC introduced several significant changes that deviated from its predecessors, affecting the exercise of judicial discretion and the calculation of penalties.
One of the most notable shifts is the expanded scope for upward discretion in sentencing. Under the earlier guidelines, judges were limited to exceeding the calculated state prison months by only 25%. In contrast, the CPC defers to statutory maximums outlined in section 775.082 of Florida statutes for each felony degree.9 This change has two major implications. First, it increases the possibility of prison sentences for all felony offenders, even those who might have been exempt under the previous guidelines. Second, it usually allows for much longer sentences than were permitted under the earlier frameworks.
|Felony Degree||Years in Prison Under CPC|
|Life Felony||Up to Life|
|1st||Up to 30|
|2nd||Up to 15|
|3rd||Up to 5|
Another critical change is the recalibration of sentencing point thresholds that dictate when a prison sentence becomes mandatory. In the CPC, if the total points are 44 or less, a non-state prison sanction is the lowest permissible sentence, though state prison up to the statutory maximum can be imposed. However, if the total points exceed 44, a formula determines the minimum state prison sentence. This represents a shift from the prior guidelines, where the threshold for mandatory incarceration was 52 points.
Although the CPC aims to provide more latitude for judicial discretion while also introducing harsher penalties, it hasn’t been without controversy. Critics point out that the expansive upward discretion and mandatory prison thresholds may not account for the unique circumstances of each case, echoing concerns that have been persistent throughout Florida’s history of sentencing reform.
Operating under the CPC framework involves the assignment of a numerical value to each felony offense. This numeric value is determined through a ranking system that has been established by the Florida legislature. If an individual’s cumulative score falls below 44 points, a judge retains discretion in determining whether to impose a prison sentence, though the possibility of such a sentence persists. To gain a more comprehensive understanding of this procedure, think of the CPC as an all-encompassing calculator. It takes numerous factors into account, including the gravity of the offense, the individual’s prior record of arrests, and the extent of harm inflicted upon the victim. Upon processing these variables, the CPC arrives at a numerical assessment. Typically, this numerical assessment signifies the minimum duration (measured in months) for which a defendant must be incarcerated if they are convicted or found guilty.
Consider a real-world situation involving a defendant named John Doe who has been charged with Felony Battery in Florida. The Defendant’s Criminal Punishment Scoresheet is completed, in accordance with the Scoresheet Preparation Manual, and it is determined that Mr. Doe’s lowest permissible prison sentence is 18.5 months in the Department of Corrections. In other words, if Mr. Doe is found guilty (or otherwise convicted) either by a plea to the court, or after trial, the court must sentence him to at least 18.5 months in prison, absent a downward departure. However, it’s important to note that this minimum is just the starting point, as the court does possess the authority to impose a sentence up to the statutory maximum for the offense. Felony Battery is third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. This means that while Mr. Doe’s lowest permissible sentence is 18.5 months, the court has discretion to sentence him to up to 5 years in prison.
An experienced Tampa felony lawyer can meticulously review a defendant’s calculated CPC sentence for potential errors or inaccuracies, and even advocate for a downward departure when appropriate.
The Florida legal system takes a firm stance against repeat offenders and has established specific sentencing designations to ensure enhanced penalties for those who repeatedly engage in criminal activities. These sentencing enhancements are discussed in further detail below.
To qualify as a Habitual Felony Offender (HFO), pursuant to section 775.084(1)(a), Florida Statutes, an individual must have two or more prior felony convictions in Florida or similar offenses from other jurisdictions.10 Secondly, the current felony that triggers HFO classification must have been committed during a prison term or within five years of release from prison. Finally, the current felony and at least one of the two prior convictions should not involve controlled substance-related offenses under Section 893.13, Florida Statutes.
The impact of HFO classification is significant, doubling prison terms. For example, a typical third-degree felony with a five-year maximum becomes 10 years, second-degree felonies with a 15-year maximum becomes 30 years, and first-degree felonies with a 30-year maximum result in life imprisonment.
To be designated a Habitual Violent Felony Offender (HVFO), pursuant to section 775.084(1)(b), Florida Statutes, one must have a previous felony conviction and at least one of the Defendant’s prior convictions was for a specified offense.11 Specified offenses are outlined in the statute and include aggravated assault, arson, murder, and robbery, among others. The complete list can be found in section § 775.084(1)(b). The current felony triggering HVFO status must be one of the enumerated offenses and committed while serving a sentence for a prior enumerated offense or within five years of release.
HVFO sentencing enhancements carry even more substantial weight than those applied to habitual felony offenders. For third-degree felonies, the term increases to up to 10 years, with no eligibility for release until five years have been served – effectively establishing a minimum mandatory 5-year term. Second-degree felonies, usually carrying a maximum 15-year sentence, elevate to up to 30 years, coupled with a non-negotiable minimum mandatory sentence of 10 years. First-degree felonies, typically subject to a maximum of 30 years behind bars, result in a minimum mandatory 10-year sentence. Life felony convictions while classified as an HVFO lead to a minimum mandatory 15-year sentence.
Under section 775.084(1)(d), to be classified as a Violent Career Criminal, an individual must have three or more prior convictions for specific offenses outlined in the statute, like aggravated child abuse, escape, and forcible felonies, among others.12 You can find the complete list in section § 775.084(1)(d). Secondly, the person must have a history of being incarcerated in prison, and the felony to be sentenced is on the enumerated list and was committed during a prior prison sentence or within five years of release from prison.
For those designated as Violent Career Criminals, the consequences are significant, turning typical sentences into 15 years for third-degree felonies (with a mandatory minimum of 10 years), 40 years for second-degree felonies (with a mandatory minimum of 30 years), life imprisonment for first-degree felonies (with a mandatory minimum of 10 years), and life sentences for life felony convictions, with no judicial discretion.
Pursuant to section 775.082(9)(a), Florida Statutes, qualification as a Prison Releasee Reoffender requires committing specified offenses during a prison term, escape status, or within three years following release.13 For a comprehensive list of these specified offenses, please refer to section 775.082(9)(a).
In this situation, when someone commits a third-degree felony, they face a mandatory minimum prison sentence of five years, which is typically the maximum penalty. For second-degree felony convictions, the minimum sentence increases to 15 years, surpassing the typical maximum. Likewise, for first-degree felonies, this designation imposes a mandatory 30-year sentence, and for life felonies, it leads to a life sentence. This classification leaves no room for judicial discretion.
In addition to the possibility of imprisonment and fines, a felony conviction in Florida carries a host of other devastating consequences:
Make no mistake—being convicted of a felony will severely limit your employment opportunities, your ability to secure suitable housing, and your freedoms in many other aspects of life, including travel and securing loans. This also means a loss of civil rights like voting and owning firearms.
If you’re facing such dire circumstances, it is imperative to seek the assistance of an experienced Tampa felony lawyer. Not only can proper legal representation help you navigate the complicated legal system, but a skillful attorney can also significantly affect the outcome of your case. Should your attorney successfully avoid a conviction—and provided you have no prior convictions—you can then discuss the possibility of sealing or expunging your felony criminal record. Don’t let a felony charge define your future. Contact a Tampa felony lawyer today to discuss your options.
The Law Office of William B. Wynne represents clients in all criminal matters, including felony cases. Consultations are free of charge, and we offer payment plans to those who qualify. Call today to speak with a Tampa felony lawyer! (813) 532-5057.