State and Federal Government Disagree on What Constitutes a Conviction

Does the government understand it’s own laws?  If you ask the elected officials who are drafting the laws, they supreme courtmay tell you to wait until the bill has passed to find out what’s in it.  Basically, not even the people drafting our laws understand them, and things get no better once a law has passed.   Ask three government officials a question, and you’re likely to get three different answers.  Even if you arrive at a reasonably correct answer, that law may conflict with several other laws.  For example, when We The People decided to legalize marijuana in several states, our federal government did not agree with that decision.  After all, marijuana is still a Schedule 1 narcotic under federal law. So, do you think the federal government might respect the state electorate’s decision?  Of course not.  Like some two year old throwing a tantrum, the feds harass legal marijuana retailers by threatening money laundering charges against any bank that accepts currency derived from the sale of an illegal narcotic.  If you want to legally buy weed, you’re going to have to pay in cash.  Coincidentally, this is the way weed transactions have gone down while the substance was illegal, so I guess some things never change.

The federal government is not happy with certain aspects of Florida’s criminal justice system.  Namely, they don’t like the fact that Florida permits citizens to admit to a crime–yet not be found guilty of it.  We call this a “withhold of adjudication”, and here’s how it works.  Say you have stolen a car, and you confess to such.  In court, the guilty plea sounds something like this: “Yes Your Honor, I stole that car, I plead guilty to the crime of Grand Theft Auto”.   In Florida, the judge may respond “I am not going to find you guilty of stealing the car, this court will withhold adjudication, you will not be a convicted felon”.  Unfortunately, the federal government has never approved of such technicalities, and the feds will treat this plea as a conviction.  To see how this issue was recently resolved, let’s take a look at the case of  Clarke v. United States of America, 2016 Fla. LEXIS 277 (Fla. 2016).

Clarke was charged in federal court with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, based upon a guilty plea in a Florida court to possession of cocaine.  Clarke is appealing his federal conviction because he claims that he was never convicted of a felony–he received a “withhold of adjudication”.  The federal prosecutors claimed that, because Clarke pled guilty to a felony charge of possession of cocaine, the guilty plea should be treated as a felony conviction for federal purposes.  And, believe it or not, the federal prosecutors have solid case law to back up their claim.  In the case of United States v. Orellanes, a federal court held that “one who pleads guilty in a Florida state court and has imposition of sentence withheld, may nevertheless be held to have been ‘convicted’ for purposes of applying federal criminal statutes which punish certain conduct following conviction of a felony.” 809 F.2d 1526, 1527 (11th Cir. 1987).

In a rare moment of clarity, the federal court Clarke initially appealed to noted that “it has become increasingly clear that perhaps our interpretation of Florida law [is] either in error or has since changed.” Clarke, 780 F.3d 1131, 1133 (11th Cir. 2015).  The federal court reasoned that they must rule against Clarke on his issue, because they are bound by federal cases like U.S. v.  Orellances, above, though they could alter their decision should the Florida Supreme Court rule on this issue, as the federal court can abandon it’s own interpretations of law when confronted with the Florida Supreme Court’s interpretation.

As you might expect, our Florida Supreme Court ruled that the guilty plea entered by Clarke did not constitute a felony conviction, because his adjudication was withheld.  As such, Clarke’s federal charge of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon should go away.  Nevertheless, the Florida Supreme Court did explain that some Florida laws continue to ignore a withhold of adjudication, treating non-felons as if they were felons.  For example, citizens must register as a felon under Floirda Statute 775.13, even when adjudication is withheld.  Also, a citizen must register a sex offender under Fla. Stat. 943.0435(1)(b), even though adjudication may be withheld.