Florida law imposes harsher penalties on defendants who knowingly commit crimes of violence against law enforcement officers. For instance, a defendant found guilty of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer is subject to a mandatory life sentence. Understandably, a criminal defense attorney who represents a client faced with one of these charges will strive to remove the law enforcement victim enhancement, if possible. A recent decision out of the Florida Supreme Court-Ramroop v. State-has made it easier for defendants to do just that, by holding that the defendant must have known the victim was a law enforcement officer for the statute to apply.
Ramroop involved a driver who attempted to flee the police during a traffic stop. While doing so, he shot at one of the officers involved in the pursuit. After a jury trial, he was convicted of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer. The appeals court and the Florida Supreme Court reversed the conviction, however, because the trial judge did not instruct the jury that knowledge the victim was a law enforcement officer was an essential element of the offense.
In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court drew a distinction between "enhancement" statutes and "reclassification" statutes. If a trial court imposes an enhancement in error, an appellate court can remove the enhancement and leave untouched the conviction for the un-enhanced version of the crime; in this case, regular attempted murder.
To reclassify a crime, however, the jury must find that the defendant committed every essential element of the reclassified offense beyond a reasonable doubt. Because the jury was not instructed on one of the essential elements of the crime, the Florida Supreme Court found that the entire conviction was defective, and ordered a new trial.
The Florida Supreme Court's decision will make convictions for these types of crimes more difficult to prove and provide a more substantial remedy to Defendants when the court does not properly instruct the jury. While a Defendant who doesn't know that the victim is a law enforcement officer may still be convicted of attempted murder, a criminal defense attorney who successfully prevents the crime from being reclassified may ultimately save his or her client from a lifetime of incarceration.