In Baxter v. State, Florida’s First District Court of Appeals recently reversed a 20-year jail prison sentence on an obscure, yet effective legal theory available to criminal defendants: “judicial vindictiveness.”
Ms. Baxter was charged with attempted manufacture of a controlled substance, unlawful possession of a listed chemical and arson to an occupied structure after she and a friend botched an attempt to make meth in a hotel room in Marianna. “On Halloween Day 2009, Ms. Baxter and codefendant, Damian Johnson, had two goals: make methamphetamine and have sex,” the court explained. “They first embarked on the dangerous and toxic process of attempting to manufacture meth, neither being skilled in the task.” The situation quickly turned dire when a plastic bottle in which Johnson was mixing the ingredients exploded in his hand and ignited, injuring Johnson and damaging the room.
Baxter initially accepted a plea deal in which she would be sentenced to two years in a drug offender program – nearly the first to be spent behind bars in county jail – followed by up to 13 years of probation, depending on how long it took her to pay restitution for the hotel damage. She later told the trial judge, who was apparently involved in the plea deal negotiations, that she wanted to withdraw the plea. Although the judge informed Baxter that she would be facing a potential 50-year sentence if the case went to trial, he allowed her to withdraw the plea.
During further conversations with her counsel, the judge considered Baxter’s request to have the plea deal reinstated, but ultimately decided that she should be tried. She was convicted following trial in August 2011, and the trial judge sentenced Baxter to 20 years in prison.
The First District reversed the sentence on appeal. “Judicial vindictiveness has two strains: actual vindictiveness and constructive vindictiveness,” the court explained. “The latter–which is more common and is at issue in this appeal–involves situations where the circumstances of the sentencing support a presumption that the sentence imposed is improper and the State has not articulated sufficient reasons to overcome the presumption.”
While the trial judge was authorized to be involved in the plea deal discussions, the court said he erred by holding some of these conversations off the record. The judge also made some statements during these discussions that seemed to indicate that he was improperly personally invested in the negotiations. He expressed frustration with Baxter and with his own decision to be involved in the plea discussions, for example, by saying that he didn’t want to have to “bend over backwards” or “beg ” her to get her to accept the deal. The judge also later mentioned that “cops don’t like it” in reference to plea deals for drug offenders, an indication that he may have declined her request to reconsider the deal because it might rub law enforcement officials the wrong way, according to the court. Finally, the court said the disparity between the one-year jail sentence offered in the plea deal and the 20-year sentence Baxter ultimately received was evidence of potential vindictiveness.
As a result, the appeals court remanded the case for resentencing.
If you’re facing a drug possession charge in Florida, it is important that you seek the advice of a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney who can advocate and mount a defense on your behalf. At Anidjar & Levine, our South Florida drug possession lawyers have years of experience handling drug possession cases. We work with clients to develop an effective legal defense in order to get charges dismissed or reduced.
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