State v. Cotton

Decision Date15 June 2000
Docket Number No. SC95281., No. SC94996
Citation769 So.2d 345,40 Fla. 772
PartiesSTATE of Florida, Petitioner, v. Sammy COTTON, Respondent. Nathaniel Woods, Petitioner, v. State of Florida, Respondent.
CourtFlorida Supreme Court

Robert A. Butterworth, Attorney General, and Robert J. Krauss, Senior Assistant Attorney General, and Ronald Napolitano, Assistant Attorney General, Tallahassee, Florida, for Petitioner in No. SC94996.

James Marion Moorman, Public Defender, and Megan Olson, Assistant Public Defender, Tenth Judicial Circuit, Bartow, Florida, for Respondent in No. SC94996.

Nancy A. Daniels, Public Defender, Paula S. Saunders and Michael J. Minerva, Assistant Public Defenders, Second Judicial Circuit, Tallahassee, Florida, for Petitioner in No. SC95281.

Robert A. Butterworth, Attorney General, James W. Rogers, Bureau Chief, Criminal Appeals, and Charmaine M. Millsaps, Assistant Attorney General, Tallahassee, Florida, for Respondent in No. SC95281.



We have for review State v. Cotton, 728 So.2d 251 (Fla. 2d DCA 1998), and Woods v. State, 740 So.2d 20 (Fla. 1st DCA 1999),1 both involving the Prison Releasee Reoffender Act, chapter 97-239, Laws of Florida, codified in part in former section 775.082(8), Florida Statutes (1997)(the "Act").2 In Cotton, the district court affirmed the trial court's decision not to sentence Cotton, a qualifying defendant for whom the State sought sentencing under the Act, as a "prison releasee reoffender." In affirming Cotton's sentence, the Second District held that, where a defendant claims one of the circumstances set forth in section 775.082(8)(d)1, Florida Statutes, the trial court (not the prosecutor) has the responsibility to determine facts, and authority to exercise discretion, regarding whether or not to impose a mandatory sentence under the Act. See Cotton, 728 So.2d at 252.

In Woods, the defendant below (who also qualified for sentencing as a "prison releasee reoffender") argued that the Act was unconstitutional on its face. The First District disagreed, holding that the Act does not violate "the separation of powers clause of the Florida Constitution and the due process and equal protection clauses of both the United States and the Florida Constitutions." 740 So.2d at 24. In so holding, however, the First District—contrary to the Second District's construction —determined that the State, rather than the trial court, has discretion to determine whether a defendant qualifying under the Act will be sentenced as a "prison releasee reoffender." The First District, noting that its interpretation conflicted with Cotton,3 certified4 the following question as one of great public importance:


Id. at 25. We have jurisdiction. See Art. V, § 3(b)(3), (4), Fla. Const.


In arguing that the Act violates the separation of powers clause (article II, section 3, of the Florida Constitution), the defendant in Woods asserted that the Act "deprives the judiciary of all sentencing discretion, placing that discretion in the hands of the state attorney, who is a member of the executive branch." 740 So.2d at 22. The threshold question here, as framed by Judge Webster in Woods, is "whether the Act does, in fact, remove all (or substantially all) sentencing discretion from the judicial branch, placing it, instead, in the executive branch." Based upon the plain language of the Act, which is supported both by its legislative history5 and by a subsequent clarifying amendment, we hold that—at least to the extent that the Act is properly construed to establish a mandatory minimum sentence—it does.

Prior to amendment, the Act provided, in pertinent part6:

775.082. Penalties; mandatory minimum sentences for certain reoffenders previously released from prison.—
. . . .
(8)(a) 1. "Prison releasee reoffender" means any defendant who commits, or attempts to commit:
. . . .
[enumerated criminal offenses, including]
g. Robbery;
. . . .
within 3 years of being released from a state correctional facility operated by the Department of Corrections or a private vendor.
2. If the state attorney determines that a defendant is a prison releasee reoffender as defined in subparagraph 1., the state attorney may seek to have the court sentence the defendant as a prison releasee reoffender. Upon proof from the state attorney that establishes by a preponderance of the evidence that a defendant is a prison releasee reoffender as defined in this section, such defendant is not eligible for sentencing under the sentencing guidelines and must be sentenced as follows:
. . . .
c. For a felony of the second degree, by a term of imprisonment of 15 years;
. . . .
(b) A person sentenced under paragraph (a) shall be released only by expiration of sentence and shall not be eligible for parole, control release, or any form of early release. Any person sentenced under paragraph (a) must serve 100 percent of the court-imposed sentence.
(c) Nothing in this subsection shall prevent a court from imposing a greater sentence of incarceration as authorized by law, pursuant to s. 775.084 or any other provision of law.
(d)1. It is the intent of the Legislature that offenders previously released from prison who meet the criteria in paragraph (a) be punished to the fullest extent of the law and as provided in this subsection, unless any of the following circumstances exist:
a. The prosecuting attorney does not have sufficient evidence to prove the highest charge available;
b. The testimony of a material witness cannot be obtained;
c. The victim does not want the offender to receive the mandatory prison sentence and provides a written statement to that effect; or
d. Other extenuating circumstances exist which preclude the just prosecution of the offender.
2. For every case in which the offender meets the criteria in paragraph (a) and does not receive the mandatory minimum prison sentence, the state attorney must explain the sentencing deviation in writing and place such explanation in the case file maintained by the state attorney. On a quarterly basis, each state attorney shall submit copies of deviation memoranda regarding offenses committed on or after the effective date of this subsection, to the President of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, Inc. The association must maintain such information, and make such information available to the public upon request, for at least a 10-year period.

§ 775.082, Fla. Stat. (1997)(emphasis supplied). Thus, pursuant to the legislative scheme, it is the state attorney who invokes application of the mandatory sentencing provisions; the state attorney who must determine whether there are extenuating circumstances (three of which are specifically identified) precluding the "just prosecution of the offender" pursuant to the Act; and the state attorney who is held accountable by the Legislature to the public in those instances where exceptions to prosecution under the Act are made.

Further, following the Cotton decision, the Legislature—by chapter 99-188, Laws of Florida (the "Three-Strike Violent Felony Offender Act")—promptly amended the statute, thereby clarifying its intent with respect to the "exceptions" section. The amendment omitted subsections a., b., and c. of the former subsection (8)(d)1., providing instead:

It is the intent of the Legislature that offenders previously released from prison who meet the criteria in paragraph (a) be punished to the fullest extent of the law and as provided in this subsection, unless the state attorney determines that extenuating circumstances exist which preclude the just prosecution of the offender, including whether the victim recommends that the offender not be sentenced as provided in this subsection.

Ch. 99-188, § 2, Laws of Fla. (codified in section 775.082(9)(d), Florida Statutes (1999))(emphasis supplied). Although the 1997 statute applies to these appeals, we accept the 1999 amendment as clarification of the Legislature's intent that, where a defendant qualifies as a "prison releasee reoffender," it is the state attorney, and not the trial court, who has the authority to determine (in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion) whether or not to seek sentencing under the Act. Cf. Finley v. Scott, 707 So.2d 1112, 1116-1117 (Fla.1998) (accepting amendment to section 61.30(1)(a), Florida Statutes, as clarifying legislative intent "that the trial court's decision as to a variant amount is to be based on these factors now listed in section 61.30(1)(a)")(citing Parole Comm'n v. Cooper, 701 So.2d 543 (Fla.1997), for the proposition that, in interpreting a statute, it is proper for the court to consider a subsequent amendment to it, if such amendment was enacted soon after a controversy regarding the statute's interpretation arose); Lowry v. Parole & Probation Comm'n, 473 So.2d 1248, 1250 (Fla.1985).


Both Woods and Cotton argue that the Act as thus interpreted is unconstitutional. In making this argument, they focus on the Legislature's decision to include in the Act certain broad exceptions for the prosecutor's consideration. They urge that this provision encroaches on the judiciary's sentencing function, relying on the Court's decision in Seabrook v. State, 629 So.2d 129 (Fla.1993). Since the state attorney's broad charging discretion already embodies any "exception discretion," this argument is unpersuasive. Further, petitioners' reliance on Seabrook is misplaced.

In Seabrook, the petitioner specifically contended that the habitual felony offender statute violated separation of powers because it deprived the trial court of discretion not to sentence a defendant as a habitual felony offender. However, this Court had already determined—without reference to any...

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