829 So.2d 901 (Fla. 2002), SC01-890, Robertson v. State

Docket Nº:SC01-890
Citation:829 So.2d 901, 27 Fla. L. Weekly S 829
Party Name:FLOYD THOMAS ROBERTSON, Petitioner, v. STATE OF FLORIDA, Respondent.
Case Date:October 10, 2002
Court:Supreme Court of Florida

Page 901

829 So.2d 901 (Fla. 2002)

27 Fla. L. Weekly S 829

FLOYD THOMAS ROBERTSON, Petitioner,

v.

STATE OF FLORIDA, Respondent.

No. SC01-890

Florida Supreme Court

October 10, 2002

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Application for Review of the Decision of the District Court of Appeal - Direct Conflict ,Third District - Case No. 3D98-2383 (Miami-Dade County).

Bennett H. Brummer, Public Defender, and Manuel Alvarez, Assistant Public Defender, Eleventh Judicial Circuit, Miami, Florida, for Petitioner.

Robert A. Butterworth, Attorney General, Michael J. Neimand, Criminal Appeals, Bureau Chief, and Margaret A. Brenan, Assistant Attorney General, Miami, Florida, for Respondent

PARIENTE, J.

We have for review Robertson v. State, 780 So.2d 106 (Fla. 3d DCA 2001) (en banc), a decision from the Third District Court of Appeal that misapplies this Court's holding in Dade County School Board v. Radio Station WQBA, 731 So.2d 638, 644 (Fla. 1999), and is in conflict with the opinion of the First District Court of Appeal in State Dept. of Revenue ex rel. Rochell v. Morris, 736 So.2d 41, 42 (Fla. 1st DCA 1999), regarding when an appellate court may uphold a lower court ruling on an alternative ground not considered by the lower court. The Third District's decision also misapplies this Court's opinions in Jordan v. State, 144 So. 669, 669-70 (Fla. 1932), and Foy v. State, 155 So. 657, 658 (Fla. 1934), regarding the permissible scope of impeachment of a testifying defendant. Based on the conflict created by these misapplications, we have jurisdiction under article V, section 3(b)(3), of the Florida Constitution. See Florida Dep't of Transp. v. Juliano, 801 So.2d 101, 103 (Fla. 2001) (citing Vest v. Travelers Ins. Co., 753 So.2d 1270, 1272 (Fla. 2000)). For the reasons that follow, we quash the Third District's decision and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

BACKGROUND

On September 16, 1996, Officer Dominguez was dispatched to an apartment to investigate a shooting. In the bedroom of the apartment shared by Robertson and the victim, Maria Nelson, Officer Dominguez observed Nelson lying on the bed. Nelson was conscious and breathing, but was not communicating. On the floor, about five feet from the bed, was a .40 caliber Ruger handgun with a bullet clip next to it. Officer Dominguez found an entrance wound in Nelson's chest and an exit wound in the middle of her back. Nelson ultimately died from the gunshot wound, and Robertson was charged with second-degree murder. Robertson's theory of defense was that the gun accidentally misfired while he was trying to clean it. The State's theory of the case was that Robertson intentionally shot Nelson during a domestic dispute.

At trial, the defense called Robertson to testify on his own behalf, and during the State's cross-examination of Robertson the following exchange took place:

[STATE] Q: In fact, you are familiar with large assault rifles, weren't [sic] you?

[DEFENDANT] A: Several models, yes sir.

Q: In fact, you purchased an AK-47, didn't you?

Defense counsel immediately objected on the basis that the question was "irrelevant" and "outside the scope of direct." The trial court overruled the objection and the State thereafter inquired:

Q: Isn't that correct, Mr. Robertson?

A: Yes, right after Hurricane Andrew I did.

Q: And in fact, isn't it a fact that you have threatened people with assault rifles before?

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Defense counsel again objected on the ground that this question was "totally outside the scope" of direct. The trial court again overruled the objection and the following exchange ensued:

[DEFENDANT] A: No.

[STATE] Q: You have never threatened anyone close to you with an AK-47, Mr. Robertson?

A: I have never threatened anybody close to me with a weapon, anybody period, with a weapon, sir.

The State argued that based on Robertson's negative response to these questions, Robertson's ex-wife should be allowed to testify on rebuttal that Robertson had threatened her with an AK-47 six years earlier. The trial court, over defense objection, concluded that in light of Robertson's answers to the State's questions during its cross-examination, the rebuttal testimony constituted proper impeachment. Robertson's ex-wife thereafter testified to an alleged incident in which she claimed Robertson threatened her with an AK-47. She testified that Robertson became enraged and pointed the AK-47 at her as she was running away, causing her to fear that she would be shot in the back. The incident was neither reported to the police nor investigated.

In closing argument, the State emphasized the significance of the rebuttal testimony:

Now you have to figure in the rest of your story, the anger, the fighting leading up to November 17th, the confrontation that was going to take place that night, her incredible fear of this man as told to Shirley Baumgartner, his anger.

For God sake, you saw his ex-wife on this witness stand because he lied to you on cross-examination about owning an AK-47 which is a huge assault rifle and threatening somebody close to you.

I asked him that question, and, boy, I gave him the opportunity. He could have said, yeah, there was this situation with my wife and, you know, I really didn't mean it, but no, I would never do that. I don't threaten anybody with guns, any type of guns, much less an AK-47.

So, Mrs. Robertson comes in here and tells you about a situation right after the hurricane where they were getting some building supplies and this defendant becomes enraged because mom and daughter can't help him bring in some heavy supplies from the car and what does he do? I am going to teach you a lesson. He goes back into the hallway, grabs the AK-47, slams a magazine, a clip into it and points it at her as she is running out the door and she thinks she is going to get shot in the back.

That gives you a little insight into what you are dealing with here.

(Emphasis supplied.)

The jury returned a verdict finding Robertson guilty of second-degree murder. Robertson appealed his conviction and sentence of life imprisonment, claiming as error the trial court's first permitting questions on cross-examination regarding prior alleged threats with the AK-47, and second allowing as impeachment Robertson's ex-wife's rebuttal testimony regarding the prior threat with the AK-47. The Third District initially reversed the trial court's decision, holding both that the prosecutor's questions regarding the alleged prior crime were improper and that Robertson's ex-wife's testimony was improper impeachment. See Robertson v. State, 780 So.2d 94, 96 (Fla. 3d DCA 2000). However, the Third District reviewed the case en banc and, on rehearing, affirmed the trial court's admission of Robertson's ex-wife's testimony. See Robertson, 780 So.2d at 113. The majority held that the evidence

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was admissible asWilliams 1 rule evidence, see Robertson, 780 So.2d at 113, a determination never made by the trial court and never asserted by the State on appeal.

The Third District's plurality opinion, in which four judges concurred, stated that the evidence was admissible as both impeachment and Williams rule evidence. See id. The remaining four judges dissented, explaining why Robertson's ex-wife's testimony was not admissible either as impeachment or under the Williams rule. See id. at 123-24 (Sorondo, J., dissenting).

MISAPPLICATION OF THE TIPSY COACHMAN DOCTRINE

The first issue we address in this case is whether the Third District majority, in concluding that the evidence that Robertson threatened his ex-wife with an AK- 47 constituted permissible Williams rule evidence, erred in affirming the trial court on grounds neither raised by the State nor considered by the trial court. The State concedes that at no time, either before trial or on appeal, did it argue that the evidence that Robertson threatened his ex-wife with an AK-47 six years earlier was admissible under the Williams rule. The State's sole argument was that Robertson's ex-wife's testimony constituted proper impeachment because of the answers that Robertson gave in response to the questions the State asked him on cross-examination.

We start with the proposition that "[g]enerally, if a claim is not raised in the trial court, it will not be considered on appeal." Radio Station WQBA, 731 So.2d at 644. However, notwithstanding this principle "[i]n some circumstances, even though a trial court's ruling is based on improper reasoning, the ruling will be upheld if there is any theory or principle of law in the record which would support the ruling." Id. (emphasis supplied).

This longstanding principle of appellate law, sometimes referred to as the "tipsy coachman" doctrine, allows an appellate court to affirm a trial court that "reaches the right result, but for the wrong reasons" so long as "there is any basis which would support the judgment in the record." Id. at 644-45. 2 As we explained in Radio Station WQBA, this Court has adhered to this principle on many other occasions. See id. (citing Applegate v. Barnett Bank, 377 So.2d 1150, 1152 (Fla. 1979) ("The written final judgment by the trial court could well be wrong in its reasoning, but the decision of the trial court is primarily what matters, not the reasoning used. Even when based on erroneous reasoning, a conclusion or decision of a trial court will generally be affirmed if the evidence or an alternative theory supports it.")); see also Muhammad v. State, 782 So.2d 343, 359 (Fla. 2001) ("[T]he trial court's ruling on an evidentiary matter will be affirmed even if the trial court ruled for the wrong reasons, as long as the evidence or an alternative theory supports the ruling.").

The key to the application of this doctrine of appellate efficiency is that

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there must have been support for the...

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