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Will Having Prior Domestic Violence Convictions Impact My Current Case?

Short answer: Yes.

Research shows domestic violence defendants tend to have higher rates of recidivism than many other offenders. For instance, a study published by the U.S. Department of Justice found that more than two-thirds (70%) of individuals in a sample of people arrested for domestic violence in 2012 were arrested again for the same offense within 3.5 years.

Any prior criminal conviction on your record has the potential to adversely impact the outcome of any pending Florida criminal case - and that includes domestic violence cases. Florida specifically imposes a minimum mandatory sentence of 15 days for a second domestic violence conviction and 30 days for a third or subsequent offense.

In sentencing, Florida courts will consider prior convictions committed as an adult or juvenile. Violations of federal, out-of-state, military, foreign court laws as well as county or municipal ordinances that are analogous to Florida law may be considered when determining “prior convictions.” If the prior offense was an older one - and it’s been 10 years since you were released from jail, prison, or probation and you haven’t been in any trouble since - then that won’t factor. Juvenile offenses (sex offenses or any that would have been considered a crime if they were an adult) committed 5+ before the newest offense aren’t considered either - unless the defendant hasn’t remained crime-free since their juvenile case.

Beyond that, the extent to which one’s previous misdeeds influence any outcomes in the newer case depends on things like:

  • The nature of the previous offense, and whether it involved violence or the threat of violence.
  • Whether it bears any similarities to the current case.
  • How long ago the prior conviction was.
  • Whether the current case involves violation of probation or injunction of a previous case.

While some of these will result in expressly-stated additional penalties, they can be a bit subjective - and both prosecutors and judges have a fair amount of discretion. Working with a Broward criminal defense lawyer with extensive experience representing domestic violence defendants is usually your best shot at minimizing the impact a prior conviction will have in the current case.

Florida Has Gotten Tougher on Repeat DV Offenders

Over the last two decades, Florida prosecutors have taken an increasingly hard line on repeat offenders - particularly repeat domestic violence offenders. In the past, battery was usually charged as a misdemeanor, even when the defendant had prior convictions for previous battery incidents.

Then in 1996, Florida lawmakers vowed a more aggressive approach to repeat violence, and enacted F.S. 784.03(2), the felony battery statute. The law reclassifies misdemeanor batteries as felonies when the offender has prior battery convictions.

In the past, the law required at least two prior battery convictions before increasing third or subsequent offenses from a first-degree misdemeanor (punishable by up to 1 year in jail) to a third-degree felony (with a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison). The 1996 law - plus a 2001 legislative amendment - narrowed the threshold to just one prior act of battery for a second or subsequent offense to be charged as a felony. Additionally, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in the 2001 case of State v. Warren that aggravated battery qualifies as “prior batteries” under the statute.

Further, Florida prosecutors - who have sole discretion over whether to seek sentencing enhancements (including the state’s controversial Two Strikes Law) almost always seek the maximum punishments. Numbers from the Florida State Attorneys’ Offices revealed that in some 90,000 cases where sentence enhancements, prosecutors sought the harshest sentences possible in 90 percent of them. In the last 10 years, among prosecutors in 20 judicial districts, more than half systematically pursued every enhancement possible - 100 percent of the time.

That doesn’t reflect the actual outcomes of those cases, many of which end in plea deals. However, it does underscore the point that prosecutors are unlikely to go light on someone facing a violent charge who has a prior conviction on a violent charge.

(Note: Multiple domestic violence convictions for the same episode are generally prohibited under double jeopardy laws. However, as our Broward domestic violence defense lawyers can explain, one can still be charged with several different crimes in connection with one incident. And in the case of domestic violence misdemeanors, prosecutors can pursue “stacked” sentencing, where a defendant serves time for multiple charges consecutively rather than concurrently.)

Admissibility of Prior Bad Acts

Prior domestic violence convictions are not only relevant during the sentencing phase. They can also play a role in conviction as well. This is thanks to the Williams Rule, codified in F.S. 90.404, which details the admissibility of character evidence.

The rule is named after the case law that set the precedent - Williams v. State of Florida - in 1959. Historically, criminal courts have been reticent to allow evidence of prior convictions to be presented in trial over concerns it may unfairly prejudice jurors. Just because someone committed a crime once before doesn’t necessarily mean they did again. However, the Williams Rule allows evidence of “prior bad acts, wrongs, or crimes committed” by the accused to be admitted into evidence in narrow circumstances where it may be relevant to prove some material fact that’s in question. The argument for admitting prior convictions is that it may help establish motive, opportunity, knowledge, or preparation.

However, as our Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers can explain, it is not to be used solely as a means to demonstrate that the defendant has bad character or some inherent propensity to commit a crime. The similarity of the previous offense to the one at issue will be closely analyzed - which is why prior convictions for domestic violence are so problematic when you’re facing yet another domestic violence charge.

Some examples where the Williams rule has allowed prior bad acts and/or convictions to be weighed as evidence in a new case:

  • Boroughs v. State, Fla. 5th DCA 1996. Testimony about the abusive nature of a defendant’s relationship with a victim was relevant to prove lack of consent in a sexual battery, as well as victim’s reticence to contact police afterward.
  • Goldstein v. State, Fla. 4th DCA 1984. Evidence of a defendant's prior threats against the victim (his ex-wife) were admitted because they were relevant to the question of intent on a premeditated murder charge.
  • Hyer v. State, Fla. 2nd DCA 1984. Evidence of a domestic violence injunction, as well as the wife/victim’s testimony about being previously struck by her husband, was allowed to establish premeditation after he was charged with a felony for allegedly shooting her.
  • Burgal v. State, Fla. 3rd DCA 1999. Prior evidence of domestic violence by the defendant against the victim were admitted into evidence to show intent and premeditation in an attempted murder/armed burglary case.

On the flipside, there’s the landmark case of Robertson v. State, issued by the Florida Supreme Court, 2002. This was a landmark case wherein a defendant in a second-degree murder case (a husband accused of fatally shooting his wife) argued the court made a reversible error in admitting evidence of a prior domestic violence incident involving his ex-wife. Defendant insisted the shooting was an accident that occurred when he was cleaning his gun. Prosecutors argued it wasn’t an accident. During initial questioning by police, the defendant told the officer he’d never threatened anyone close to him before with any weapon. Prosecutors sought to disprove this with his ex-wife’s testimony that he had threatened her six years earlier, albeit with a different weapon. He was never arrested or convicted in that case. Prosecutors didn’t actually argue this as Williams Rule evidence, but rather simply to impeach the defendant’s own testimony. He was convicted. On appeal, Florida’s Third-District Court of Appeal upheld the conviction, citing the “tipsy coachman doctrine,” which essentially says they can affirm trial court rulings that reach the right conclusions, even if for the wrong reasons. Had the prosecutors cited the Williams Rule (which they did not), the 3rd DCA held they could have prevailed in admitting evidence of the prior domestic violence incident because it helped to prove absence of mistake or accident.

In its reversal, the Florida Supreme Court ruled evidence of the prior domestic violence incident would not be admissible, even under the Williams Rule. The prior incident of alleged misconduct involved a different victim, a different weapon, and the threat of violence rather than actual violence. The court held that if the prior threat had been against the victim, it might have been admissible to show intent and the absence of a mistake. However, a threat against another years earlier to prove actual violence committed against someone else with a different weapon couldn’t be admitted under the Williams Rule.

Hire a South Florida Domestic Violence Defense Lawyer

Bottom line: If you’re facing a second or subsequent domestic violence offense in Florida, your previous convictions can definitely come back to bite you - increasing both the likelihood of conviction and enhanced penalties.

An experienced defense lawyer can help to effectively challenge the prosecution on presenting evidence of prior convictions or bad acts. Even if the state succeeds in having it admitted, we can preserve challenges for future appeals. We can also argue for reduced charges and/or present the court with mitigating circumstances that may help reduce your sentence.

If you are accused of domestic violence in Broward, Palm Beach, or Miami-Dade Counties, contact The Ansara Law Firm today for your free initial consultation at (954) 761-4011.

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