In Florida criminal defense cases, the details matter. Not only must the prosecution establish each and every element of the crime charged in order to secure a conviction, but the judge must also clearly explain to the jury each and every element and the proof necessary to establish them in order to support a guilty verdict. In Jackson v. State, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeals explains that a judge’s failure to do so is a “fundamental error” requiring that a conviction be reversed.
Ms. Jackson was arrested and charged with aggravated battery with a firearm as well as aggravated assault with a firearm, stemming from an incident in which she allegedly threatened one person with a gun and shot another. The incident took place at an outdoor park when Jackson got into an argument while attending a party. She was found guilty on both charges following a jury trial.
The Fourth District reversed the assault conviction on appeal, however, ruling that the trial judge did not properly instruct the jury on the elements that the prosecution was required to prove in order to establish that she committed the crime. While Jackson did not challenge the judge’s instructions at the time, the court said that reversal was nevertheless warranted because the inaccurate instructions qualified as a “fundamental error.”
“[I]t is fundamental error when a jury instruction incorrectly defines a disputed element of the crime in such a way as to reduce the state’s burden of proof,” the court explained.
In order to prove aggravated assault, according to the court, the prosecution must first show that the defendant committed an assault. That generally means proving that the defendant made an intentional, unlawful threat – using either words or actions – to do physical harm to another person, which causes the person threatened to fear imminent bodily harm.
To establish aggravated assault, the court further explained that the prosecution must also show that the person charged made the threat with a deadly weapon or with the intent to commit a specific crime on the person threatened. “A weapon is a ‘deadly weapon’ if it is used or threatened to be used in a way likely to produce death or great bodily harm,” under the standard jury instructions used in Florida criminal cases.
While the state alleged in this case that Jackson committed the assault with a deadly weapon – a gun – the trial judge did not define the term “deadly weapon” in its jury instructions. Rather, the judge simply said that the jury should find Jackson guilty of aggravated assault if it found that she carried a firearm during the assault. As a result, the Fourth District remanded the case back to the trial court with instructions that Jackson be convicted only for simple assault.
If you have been charged with a crime in Florida, contact the South Florida criminal defense attorneys at Anidjar & Levine. We have significant experience representing clients in a wide variety of criminal cases, from DUI and drug possession to weapons and assault charges. From our offices in Ft. Lauderdale, we represent clients throughout the region, including in Hialeah, Pompano Beach and Coral Springs.
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