According to Florida Statutes § 948.01, judges are vested with special authority to withhold adjudication of a criminal matter. Under this statute, a defendant who enters a plea of guilty or no contest to a felony charge may not be classified as a convicted felon under Florida’s current laws. Judges typically opt to withhold adjudication when the defendant does not have a significant preexisting criminal history, or when the defendant does not have any prior felony convictions. If the withholding is granted, the defendant retains his or her right to vote, and under current Florida law he or she will not lose the right to possess a firearm after successfully completing probation.
Under existing laws, however, a Florida resident can be prosecuted under Florida Statutes § 922(g), “possession of a firearm by a convicted felon” law in federal court even though he or she was granted a withholding of adjudication for a felony committed in Florida.
In the recent case of USA v. Clarke, et al., for example, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals stated that federal courts have held in the past that the withholding of adjudication does not preclude federal prosecutors from prosecuting a defendant for violating § 922(g). In reconsidering past decisions dealing with withholdings of adjudication, the Eleventh Circuit has certified the question to the Florida Supreme Court to provide an opinion on the issue. A certified question means that the federal court is asking the state’s high court to provide guidance to the federal court on interpreting and applying the state rule in issue.
Whether a charge may qualify pursuant to § 922(g) is determined based on the laws of the jurisdiction in which the case was tried. When it comes to applying and interpreting state laws, federal courts are bound by the holdings of each state’s highest court. When the highest court has not issued any opinions or rulings on the matter, the federal court can look to the next highest court, which is usually the intermediary or appellate court. In Florida, two appellate courts have considered this issue and held that a defendant may not be prosecuted under Florida’s “possession of a firearm by a convicted felon” statute. Despite this, the Eleventh Circuit has reached the opposite conclusion.
Until the Florida Supreme Court issues its opinion, the Eleventh Circuit has retained jurisdiction over any federal possession of firearm cases involving adjudication withholdings pursuant to Florida state law. According to the Eleventh Circuit’s opinion on the matter, “it has become increasingly clear that perhaps our interpretation of Florida law was either in error or has since changed.” Until the issue is resolved, defendants facing convictions for violations of § 922(g) should refrain from possessing firearms to avoid further criminal liability. Most defendants without prior felony convictions who receive withholdings of adjudication leave court thinking that they are free to possess firearms after completing probation. We may soon find out that this is not the case.
If you or someone you know is a suspect, facing charges for criminal penalties, or currently named as a defendant in a state or federal prosecution, the experienced and aggressive criminal defense attorneys at The Hoffman Firm can help. We have provided dedicated legal guidance to countless clients throughout Florida, including cases involving parole violations, possession of firearms, and federal crimes. Call us now at (305) 249-0090 or contact us online to set up your free consultation.