Martinez v. State, SC06-1597.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Florida
Citation981 So.2d 449
Docket NumberNo. SC06-1597.,SC06-1597.
PartiesEric MARTINEZ, Petitioner, v. STATE of Florida, Respondent.
Decision Date21 February 2008

Bennett H. Brummer, Public Defender, and Robert Godfrey, Assistant Public Defender, Eleventh Judicial Circuit, Miami, FL, for Petitioner.

Bill McCollum, Attorney General, Tallahassee, FL, Richard L. Polin, Bureau Chief, Kristen L. Davenport, and Wesley Heidt, Assistant Attorneys General, Daytona Beach, FL, for Respondent.

PER CURIAM.

Petitioner Eric Martinez seeks review of the decision of the Third District Court of Appeal in Martinez v. State, 933 So.2d 1155 (Fla. 3d DCA 2006), on the ground that it expressly and directly conflicts with decisions of the First, Second, Fourth, and Fifth District Courts of Appeal on a question of law. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(3), Fla. Const.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Eric Martinez was charged with both attempted premeditated murder and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon for the single act of stabbing his girlfriend. See Martinez, 933 So.2d at 1157. During the trial, Martinez asserted self-defense along with other defenses. See id. at 1167. The instructions given to the jury with regard to self-defense included the forcible-felony instruction, as follows:

However, the use of force likely to cause death or great bodily harm is not justifiable if you find:

1. Eric Martinez was attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of an Attempted Murder and/or Aggravated Battery . . . .

Id. at 1157 (emphasis supplied); see § 776.041(1), Fla. Stat. (2006). Martinez did not raise a contemporaneous objection to this instruction. See Martinez, 933 So.2d at 1157. Martinez was convicted of attempted first-degree premeditated murder and subsequently appealed the conviction. See id. at 1175.

On appeal, the Third District concluded that it was error for the trial court to read the forcible-felony instruction where no independent forcible felony was present; however, because Martinez did not object to the instruction during trial, the objection was unpreserved. See id. at 1157-58. Therefore, the issue to be resolved was whether the giving of such an instruction constituted fundamental error. See id. at 1158. The district court held that while an erroneous defense instruction may constitute fundamental error, it does not always constitute fundamental error. See id. at 1163. The Third District concluded that an appellate court must examine the record of the case to determine whether the instruction rose to the level of fundamental error in that particular case. See id.1

The Third District examined the circumstances of Martinez's case and concluded that the erroneous reading of the forcible-felony instruction did not constitute fundamental error. See id. at 1167. First, the Third District noted that the numerous injuries to the victim (which included a stab wound to the back that punctured her lung) and the relatively minor injury to Martinez (a 1/4-inch cut to his pinky finger) were inconsistent with a theory of self-defense. See id. Second, the Third District noted that self-defense was not Martinez's sole defense — he also raised the defenses of intoxication, lack of premeditation, accident, and that the victim's wounds were self-inflicted. See id. The district court further opined that Martinez's primary defenses were intoxication and lack of premeditation, not self-defense, as evidenced by the fact that his attorney argued for a reduction of the attempted murder charge to aggravated battery rather than for an acquittal of the charge. See id. Finally, the Third District noted that the jury convicted Martinez of attempted first-degree premeditated murder and concluded that the finding of a premeditated intent to kill negated a finding of self-defense. See id. at 1167, 1175.

We accepted review of Martinez based upon express and direct conflict with a number of cases in which other district courts have held, without qualification or limitation, that to give the forcible-felony instruction when the defendant has committed only one forcible act constitutes fundamental error. See Martinez v. State, 959 So.2d 717 (Fla.2007) (table).2

ANALYSIS
Whether the Forcible-Felony Instruction Requires an Independent Forcible Felony

Initially, the State asserts that the forcible-felony instruction was intended to apply even where there is no forcible felony independent of the felony for which the defendant is claiming self-defense. As explained by the State, this instruction was intended to apply where an assailant commits a forcible felony upon the victim and the victim uses force in self-defense. According to the State, the assailant may not then respond with deadly force against the victim and claim that such force constituted justifiable self-defense. Hence, the State asserts that no independent forcible felony (such as a robbery) is required for the forcible-felony instruction to apply, and every district court of appeal in Florida has misinterpreted the statute that created the forcible-felony exception. However, a complete review of the statute that created the exception belies the State's assertion.

Section 776.041 of the Florida Statutes, "Use of Force by Aggressor," provides that a claim of self-defense is not available to a person who:

(1) Is attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of, a forcible felony.

(2) Initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless:

(a) Such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant; or

(b) In good faith, the person withdraws from physical contact with the assailant and indicates clearly to the assailant that he or she desires to withdraw and terminate the use of force, but the assailant continues or resumes the use of force.

§ 776.041, Fla. Stat. (2007) (emphasis supplied). Subsection (2) precludes the initial aggressor from asserting self-defense where he or she is the individual who provoked the use of force. Hence, subsection (2) governs the circumstance where the defendant initiated the assault, as in the hypothetical discussed in the prior paragraph. Therefore, to conclude that subsection (1) applies where there is no independent forcible felony would render subsection (2) superfluous and completely unnecessary because subsection (1) already addresses the defendant-as-provoker exception.

It is a basic rule of statutory construction that "the Legislature does not intend to enact useless provisions, and courts should avoid readings that would render part of a statute meaningless." State v. Bodden, 877 So.2d 680, 686 (Fla. 2004) (quoting State v. Goode, 830 So.2d 817, 824 (Fla.2002)). Thus, to ensure that subsection (2) is not rendered meaningless, we must interpret subsection (1) to preclude a claim of self-defense in a circumstance other than when the defendant committed a single forcible felony and provoked the use of force against himself or herself. To do so, we review the plain language of the forcible-felony subsection of the statute, which prohibits a claim of self-defense where the defendant "[i]s attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of, a forcible felony." § 776.041(1), Fla. Stat. (2007). Although the State contends that this provision does not require an independent forcible felony, to not require one would have a dual effect of rendering subsection (2) meaningless, as described above, as well as completely negating any claim of justifiable use of deadly force, even where a person was absolutely justified in using deadly force.

This Court has explained the nature of a self-defense claim as follows:

Self-defense is a plea in the nature of a confession and avoidance. In such cases the defendant confesses doing the act charged, but seeks to justify that act upon the claim that it was necessary to commit the act to save himself from death or great bodily harm.

Hopson v. State, 127 Fla. 243, 168 So. 810, 811 (1936) (emphasis supplied). Thus, when a defendant asserts a claim of self-defense, he admits the commission of the criminal act with which he was charged but contends that the act was justifiable. The underlying facts of the present case demonstrate why it would be illogical to conclude that section 776.041(1) applies where there is no independent forcible felony. During trial, Martinez asserted, in part, that his girlfriend, Rubentania Rijo, attacked him with a pair of scissors and that he was required to use deadly force to protect himself. Thus, under the self-defense instruction that was given to the jury, if the jury concluded that Martinez's actions constituted a justifiable use of force against Rijo, it would serve as a defense to the charges of aggravated battery and attempted murder. Nonetheless, the trial court then informed the jurors that the use of deadly force by Martinez would not be justifiable if "Martinez was attempting to commit ... an Attempted Murder and/or Aggravated Battery"; i.e., the very crimes Martinez attempted to justify as having been committed in self-defense.

Thus, to instruct the jury on the forcible-felony exception in this circumstance amounted to informing the jury that although it might conclude that Martinez acted in self-defense when he committed an aggravated battery or attempted murder against Rijo, the use of deadly force was not justifiable if the jury found that Martinez committed attempted murder or aggravated battery. This circular logic would most probably confuse jurors because the apparent result is that the instruction precludes a finding of self-defense and amounts to a directed verdict on the affirmative defense. To the extent the State claims...

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