By Herron Bond

In Falcon v. State (SC13-865), argued on March 6, 2014 (oral arguments available here), the Supreme Court of Florida considered a motion for post-conviction relief about whether to allow individualized sentencing for a 15 year old who in 1999 was given a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole for the murder of a cab driver in 1997.

In her initial brief, Falcon argued that her sentence is unconstitutional following the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ___ (2012). In Miller, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders violate the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The Court found that a sentence given to a juvenile under mandatory sentencing schemes which treat juvenile offenders the same as adult offenders is not proportional to the offense because children possess certain transient traits, such as “immaturity, irresponsibility…and recklessness,” that make them less culpable for their actions and more likely to reform than adults. According to Falcon, the Court’s reasoning in Miller is particularly applicable in her case because her upbringing was marked by mental and sexual abuse by her step-father and a feeling of abandonment after her parents’ divorce.

Falcon argued that the Miller rule should apply retroactively in state collateral review proceedings. She claimed that the U.S. Supreme Court intended its decision to apply in the collateral review phase, pointing to the fact that a consolidated plaintiff in Miller was also seeking post-conviction relief. Falcon also argued that the rule from Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, compels the State to apply the Miller rule in her case because “evenhanded justice requires that [a new rule] be applied retroactively to all who are similarly situated.” Finally, Falcon argued that retroactive application would be consistent with the standard articulated by the Florida Supreme Court in Witt v. State, which weighs fairness against the need for finality in determining whether to apply a rule retroactively. 387 So.2d 922 (Fla. 1980). Under Witt, a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that is constitutional in nature must be “of fundamental significance” in order to satisfy the balancing test. According to Falcon, the Miller rule is of fundamental significance because it limits the sentencing power of the state, significantly affects fairness, impugns to the accuracy of the prior sentence, and will affect a relatively small number of convictions because the mandatory sentencing statute has only been in place for 20 years.

In its answer brief, the State argued that Federal law does not mandate Florida’s retroactive application of the Miller rule. According to the State, the Court in Miller never addressed retroactivity when granting relief to the consolidated post-conviction plaintiff. Additionally, the State claimed that states are not required to rely on the test from Teague.

The State’s answer brief focused primarily on whether retroactive application of the Miller rule would comply with Florida’s Witt standards. The State claims that Miller does not comply because the rule is not “of fundamental significance.” First, the State pointed to the fact that Miller did not preclude the State’s ability to issue a life sentence, it merely added additional procedures before doing so. Next, the State argued that the rule is not of sufficient magnitude to warrant retroactivity because it has no bearing on the determination of guilt or innocence. Finally, the State pointed to the fact that the rule will affect a large number of previously-convicted defendants and place a substantial burden on the administration of justice by requiring large amount of new evidence in the individualized sentencing hearings.

The Legislature may resolve some of these issues going forward; the House recently passed CS/HB 7035, which addresses juvenile sentencing for a range of crimes. It remains to be seen how the Florida Supreme Court will address sentences already issued.

Retroactive Application of the Miller Rule to Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences

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