When Even a Small Flaw in the State’s Case Can Overturn a Conviction in Florida

In a criminal case, there are many details that both the prosecution and the defense must manage. The law imposes many requirements, both large and small, on the state regarding how it carries out a prosecution in order to ensure compliance with the Constitution and to make certain that justice is done.

In a recent case originating in South Florida, a man accused of conspiring to manufacture illegal drugs obtained a reversal of his conviction because the state charged him of conspiring with a man named “Webb” but then presented a case involving the defendant and a man named “Hicks.” The Fifth District Court of Appeal ruled that, under the specifics of this case, that error required overturning the conviction.

A Conspiracy…But With Whom?

Law enforcement officers in Okeechobee County arrested Roland Long on various drug charges related to methamphetamine. Police had caught Long buying ingredients needed for making meth from Walgreens and Walmart stores in the area. After the officers arrested Long, he waived his Miranda rights and gave a statement to the police (which can often be a very bad idea). Long claimed that he was buying Drano crystals for a man named “Ray Ray” because Ray Ray was making meth. Long later identified “Ray Ray” as Ray Hicks.

Once a person is arrested and booked in Florida, the state’s attorney looks at the case and makes a determination regarding whether there is enough evidence to pursue the matter at trial. If the state decides to proceed, the state’s attorney files what’s known as an “information,” which is the document that formally lays out the crime that the defendant has allegedly committed. The state has a limited time to file this document, which ranges from 30 days if the defendant is in jail to 175 days if the defendant is facing felony charges but is not in jail.

In Long’s case, the state decided to go forward with the prosecution. In the information document filed against Long, the state alleged that he was guilty of conspiracy to manufacture meth, having conspired with a man named “Ray Ray Webb.” Eventually, Long stood trial. However, at Long’s trial, the state never once mentioned anything about Ray Ray Webb. The prosecution made many statements about Ray Ray Hicks but not Ray Ray Webb.

Ultimately, the jury convicted Long on the conspiracy to manufacture meth charge.

Sometimes You Should Sweat the Small Stuff

In some cases, the state can make mistakes in the way they carry out the process, and these mistakes will not entitle the defendant to a reversal of his conviction. These are called harmless errors. Other times, though, there are errors — even very minute ones — that cannot be considered harmless and will always result in a reversal of the conviction. These are called fundamental errors. When it comes to a document charging a crime, such as an information, it is a fundamental flaw for the information to be “so vague, inconsistent and indefinite as to mislead the accused and embarrass him in the preparation of his defense.” It is also a fundamental defect for an information to “expose him after conviction or acquittal to substantial danger of a new prosecution for the same offense.”

Any time there is a “material difference” between the name stated in the information and the name proved at trial, it’s a fundamental flaw. Long’s case fit into that category. The error regarding Ray Ray’s last name could not qualify as a harmless error because it did exactly what the law forbids — potentially expose him to two prosecutions for the same crime. The state charged him with conspiring with Ray Ray Webb, but then at trial, the state brought forward a case alleging that Long conspired with Ray Ray Hicks.

There was no information that Ray Ray Hicks and Ray Ray Webb were two different names for the same man. Under these circumstances, there was a possibility that the state could bring a conspiracy case against Long involving him and Webb and another conspiracy prosecution against Long involving him and Hicks. That meant that, even though the information contained just a single error — the last name of Long’s alleged co-conspirator — that flaw was enough to entitle him to a reversal of his conviction.

In a criminal defense, there are a lot of details that may be vitally important to your case. They may be factual ones, or they may be procedural ones. Experienced criminal defense counsel can help you “sweat the small stuff” and make sure that you present a strong defense and that your rights are protected to the fullest extent of the law. The experienced Tampa Bay drug trafficking attorneys at Blake & Dorstem P.A. have been helping the accused for many years. Our attorneys have the skill and knowledge you or your loved one needs on your side. Call us today at (727) 286-6141 to schedule your FREE initial consultation and get the answers and assistance you need.

More Blog Posts:

Accused Persons’ Rights to be Free from Double Jeopardy in Florida Criminal Cases, Tampa Bay Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, Oct. 24, 2016

Drug Charges in Florida, Part Three of Three, Tampa Bay Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, July 7, 2016

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