Aggravated Battery, Self-Defense, and the ‘Forcible-Felony’ Exception in Florida

Felony battery cases are serious matters. Aggravated battery is a second-degree felony in Florida punishable by up to 15 years in prison and $10,000 in fines. People accused of felony battery crimes are entitled to put on affirmative defenses to overcome criminal liability. These include defenses like self-defense. When putting together a defense strategy, including affirmative defenses, in your felony trial, be sure your rights are protected by retaining representation from an experienced Tampa Bay criminal defense lawyer.

Successfully arguing self-defense can be central to the accused person’s success in a battery case. To achieve that success, the accused needs to ensure that the judge properly instructs the jury about the law of battery and of self-defense.

When those instructions are erroneous, that may affect the accused’s ability to get a fair trial, as a recent battery case from Pinellas County illustrates.

The case arose from an alleged lovers’ quarrel. After S.D. arrived home late one night, the man and his partner, R.M., became embroiled in an argument. The argument turned physical with both partners allegedly slapping, punching, and choking each other.

The state charged the man with aggravated battery. At trial, the man’s primary defense was self-defense.

Battery Versus Assault

At this juncture, it’s useful to insert a reminder about the difference between aggravated battery and aggravated assault, as many people often confuse the two. In Florida, an assault occurs when the perpetrator makes the victim fear imminent violence. Assault is an aggravated crime when it involves (1) a deadly weapon without intent to kill, or (2) with an intent to commit a felony. A battery requires actual physical contact. Additionally, the state must prove in an aggravated battery case that the accused used a deadly weapon, knowingly caused the victim great bodily harm, or struck a woman that the accused knew or should have known was pregnant.

The judge in S.D.’s case instructed the jury on the justifiable use of non-deadly force. The judge also instructed the jury that “the use of non-deadly force is not justified if you find that [the accused] was attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of an Aggravated Battery.” This latter instruction related to the “forcible-felony exception to a claim of self-defense.”

The jury found the man guilty and he received a sentence of 10 years.

A Fundamental Error and a New Trial

The man appealed and won. The problem with his trial was the set of jury instructions. The Florida Supreme Court announced in 2008 that the forcible-felony exception “applies only when there is a forcible felony independent of the one which the defendant claims he or she committed in self-defense.” In other words, as the Second DCA stated in 2012, the “exception applies only when ‘the accused is charged with at least two criminal acts, the act for which the accused is claiming self-defense and a separate forcible felony.'”

In S.D.’s case, the only criminal act the state alleged was the aggravated battery of R.M., the exact crime he argued he committed in self-defense.

If self-defense is the accused’s primary defense, a wrongful instruction related to the forcible-felony exception can constitute a “fundamental error” that requires a new trial. In S.D.’s case, the judge’s erroneous instruction removed the accused’s “main defense from the consideration of the jury, without which a jury could have determined that the State failed to meet its burden that his use of non-deadly force was not justified.” As a result, he was entitled to have his conviction reversed and to receive a new trial.

If you’re facing a felony battery charge, the knowledgeable Tampa Bay criminal defense attorneys at Blake & Dorsten P.A. can help. Our experienced team has helped people throughout the Tampa Bay area who have been accused of battery, assault, and many other felony crimes. To find out more, call us today at (727) 286-6141 to schedule your free initial consultation.

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