There are plenty of defenses to criminal accusations, some more difficult to prove than others. One of the more difficult defenses to mount is the duress defense, the essence of it involves an admission that “yes, I committed that crime”, but “I was forced to”. And, as you would expect, such a defense only leads to more questions like “really?”, “who forced you to do this?” and “why didn’t you just call the police?” So, how does this defense play out in real life? Let’s take a look.
The case is Stannard v. State, 113 So.3d 929 (Fla. 5th DCA 2013). Stannard was convicted of trafficking in oxycodone (more than 14 grams, a 15 year minimum mandatory, by the way) and obtaining a prescription by fraud. Stannard was found guilty, and the Honorable Bob LeBlanc here in Orange County gave him the minimum mandatory. Here’s how it went down. Stannard began taking oxycodone for knee pain, but when he lost his job and ran out of money, he continued acquiring pills on credit via “Pops”–a drug dealer (duh). Stannard was unable to pay the debt he amassed, so Pops started making threats (pretty common for drug dealers who are owed money, or so I am told…). The threats from Pops got to be so severe that Stannard and his mother vacated their residence. Unfortunately, Pops (and friends) tracked Stannard to his new address, snatched him up, ordering him to “come on, it’s time to pay up, … or [he] was going to be beat bad enough that his mom wouldn’t recognize [him].” Ouch.
Now, we’ve all seen our share of Hollywood movies that depict drug dealers simply killing the folks that owe them money, but Pops was a bit more practical. Pops simply wanted his pills replaced, so they drove Stannard to a Walgreens. Pops had a prescription already filled out with Stannard’s name, all he had to do was go into Walgreens, obtain the prescription, and the debt would be paid in full. Easy, right?
Stannard was accompanied by a few of Pops’ friends, and they kept a watchful eye on him from a distance to make sure the Walgreens transaction went smoothly. At the end of the trial, Stannard’s defense attorney requested the standard criminal jury instruction on duress, but Judge LeBlanc denied the request, stating on the record that “I don’t find that imminent or impending was met and a threat of future harm is not sufficient to prove this defense. It has to be imminent or impending.” Furthermore, LeBlanc reasoned that “I just don’t find [Stannard’s duress story] credible. I have to find it credible in order to allow the legal definition of duress or necessity to stand…Do this or else, that’s a threat of future harm. That’s not sufficient to rise to the legal definition of duress and necessity. So no, I’m not giving that instruction.” Id.
Now, I know Judge LeBlanc is a fine judge, super nice and super patient, but the appeals court disagreed with his ruling here, overturning the entire conviction (remanded for a new trial) due to the fact that Stannard was denied the chance to give the jury a duress instruction. Basically, the threshold for granting a defendant a jury instruction is lower than most judges realize. It just takes a minimal amount of evidence regarding a defense to trigger the granting of an instruction. So, LeBlanc’s opinion that Stannard’s defense was not “credible” may have been a true statement, but it was not the proper question to be asked, as the appeals court noted that a “defendant is entitled to have the jury instructed on his theory of defense if there is any evidence to support it”, and that “the trial court should not weigh the evidence for the purpose of determining whether the instruction is appropriate.” Id. at 932 [emphasis added]
Of course, the defense of duress is extremely difficult to prove, with the court noting that six elements are required: 1) defendant believed a danger existed, 2) a threat of serious harm to himself or another, 3) the harm must be real, imminent, and impending (yikes, tough!), 4) the defendant had no way to avoid the danger except by committing the crime, 5) the crime was committed out of duress to avoid the danger, and 6) the danger avoided outweighs the harm the crime caused. Id. Got that? Like I said, tough to prove.