Juveniles sentenced to life in prison, or a term of years equivalent to life, may have post-conviction remedies under Rule 3.850 and/or Rule 3.800. The following is a brief article written by Ms. Elvington on the Graham/Miller issues relevant to juvenile cases.
Juveniles Are Different:
Juvenile Illegal Sentences: From the perspective of a Florida criminal appeals lawyer
Understanding Graham and Miller for Juvenile Offenders
By: Brooke Elvington, Esq.
Juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole prior to Graham and Miller may seek post-conviction remedies under Rule 3.850 and/or Rule 3.800. If the offender seeks relief under Rule 3.850, it is essential that the individual file such motion within two years following the May 22, 2015 appellate mandate in Falcon v. State, 162 So. 3d 954 (Fla. 2015).
Prior to Graham v. Florida, 560 US 48 (2010) states were free to treat juvenile nonhomicide offenders as any other adult. As such, courts could sentence juveniles to life in prison. In Florida, parole for all offenders has long-since been abolished. Thus, a life sentence means “life” regardless of the offender’s age.
In Graham the United States Supreme Court held that life in prison without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional. In doing so, the Court recognized that juveniles are different. Juveniles constitute a category of offenders that are not as capable of engaging in conduct that is as “morally reprehensible” as adults, and cannot be classified among the worst of offenders. Likewise, because juveniles are still developing, there is a possibility of rehabilitation. Although the Court accepted that the State is not required to guarantee freedom, the State must ensure that the offender will have a meaningful opportunity for release during his/her natural life. Thus, courts may not impose a life sentence without the possibility of parole for juvenile nonhomicide offenders.
Since Graham, there was considerable confusion as to what constituted a “life” sentence. Trial Courts imposed lengthy term-of-year sentences that were arguably de facto life sentences without parole, and many District Courts upheld the sentences. The Florida Supreme Court provided guidance in Henry v. State, 175 So. 3d 675 (Fla. 2015), when it reversed a 90-year sentence as unconstitutional under Graham. See also Gridine v. State, 175 So. 3d 672 (Fla. 2015) (70-year sentence for attempted murder, a nonhomicide offense, is a de facto life sentence). The Court rested upon the same premise as announced by Graham – if the sentence allows no meaningful opportunity for release during the juvenile offender’s natural life, it violates the Eighth Amendment.
Graham is retroactive, and as such offenders who were sentenced prior to the 2010 opinion, may seek to have their sentence vacated under Rules 3.850 and/or 3.800. See Manuel v. State, 48 So. 3d 94 (Fla. 2d DCA 2010).
Graham limited its holding to nonhomicide offenses; however, two years later the Supreme Court held that mandatory sentencing schemes that require life sentences without parole for juvenile homicide offenders violate the Eighth Amendment, and are unconstitutional. See Miller v. State, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012). Miller was an Alabama case, however, the sentencing scheme is similar to Florida’s. In Florida, if an offender is convicted of first-degree murder, the Trial Court has no discretion to sentence the offender to anything other than death or life in prison without parole. Thus, the sentencing scheme in effect prior to Miller prohibited trial courts from considering any mitigating factors relevant to the offender’s status as a juvenile. This is the precise problem recognized by the US Supreme Court. The ultimate sentence was not necessarily the issue; rather, the problem was the sentencing scheme itself. Courts must be permitted to consider mitigating factors when imposing a life sentence for juvenile offenders.
Like Graham, Miller is retroactive. See Toye v. State, 133 So. 3d 540 (Fla. 2d DCA 2014); Falcon v. State, 162 So. 3d 954 (Fla. 2015). However, as announced in Falcon, if the defendant seeks relief under 3.850, he/she must file the motion within two years’ of the May 22, 2015 mandate.
Thus, upon the issuance of Miller three principles are clear: (1) life sentences without the possibility of parole for nonhomicide cases are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders, (2) term-of-year sentences that exclude any meaningful opportunity for release during a natural lifetime are unconstitutional, and (3) mandatory sentencing schemes for homicide offenses are unconstitutional to the extent that they prohibit sentencing courts from considering mitigating factors relevant to the offender’s status as a juvenile.
The Florida legislature acted on the Graham/Miller problem and enacted Chapter 2014-220, effective July 2014. The new sentencing scheme provides the procedures for a mandatory individualized sentencing hearing that must occur prior to sentencing a juvenile to life in prison. See also Horsley v. State, 160 So. 3d 393 (Fla. 2015). Trial courts may impose a life sentence but only after providing the individualized sentencing hearing and considering various age-related factors. In addition, the offender is entitled to review of that sentence, (unless the offender has prior convictions for enumerated offenses), as provided in 921.1402.
Although Chapter 2014-220 addresses the procedure for how to handle pending cases, it did not address how to correct sentences already imposed. The Supreme Court in Horsley v. State, 160 So. 3d 393 (Fla. 2015) held that the appropriate remedy under Miller is to apply 2014-220 to sentences already imposed. Thus, if a defendant was wrongfully sentenced to life in prison, he/she may seek relief under 3.850 and/or 3.800, and upon resentencing the appropriate procedure is that which is detailed in 2014-220.
There are remaining issues involving cases rendered final prior to 2014-220. One of the issues is how to handle the imposition of life sentences without parole when the Court used its discretionary powers to impose the sentence. In Landrum v. State, 163 So. 3d 1261 (Fla. 2d DCA 2015), the Second District affirmed a life sentence for second-degree murder, but ultimately certified the issue to the Florida Supreme Court. The Florida Supreme Court accepted jurisdiction and the matter is currently pending. In Landrum, the juvenile offender was convicted of the second-degree murder of another juvenile. Because she was convicted of second-degree, rather than first, the Court had discretion to sentence the offender to a term of years rather than life. However, the Court ultimately imposed the second harshest possible sentence, life without parole. The sentencing scheme did not address the considerations as pronounced in Miller, and as detailed in 2014-220. However, because the sentencing scheme itself did not require a mandatory sentence of life, the Court distinguished the facts from Miller. During oral argument, the Supreme Court Justices questioned the State as to why the juvenile offender here should not be entitled to an individualized sentencing hearing regardless of the sentencing scheme, when an offender convicted of first-degree murder would be afforded such hearing. This matter is pending.
In conclusion, there are possible remedies available to offenders who were convicted of both homicide and non-homicide offenses. It is important to act timely, and to evaluate the entire case to determine whether there are viable claims of relief.
Contact Ms. Elvington to discuss case evaluation.
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