Combining the immunity hearing with the trial in the Zimmerman case is a terrible idea (Part II)

March 8, 2013

Friday, March 8, 2013

Good Afternoon:

I have done more research on the Florida SYG immunity hearing and concluded that the legislature intended that the hearing occur prior to trial. The Florida Supreme Court agrees.

The Florida legislature created confusion when it did not provide a procedure for asserting, litigating and deciding a defendant’s claim of immunity from criminal prosecution and civil liability under the SYG law.

In Dennis v. State, 51 So.3d 456, 462 (2010), the Florida Supreme Court stated,

While Florida law has long recognized that a defendant may argue as an affirmative defense at trial that his or her use of force was legally justified, section 776.032 contemplates that a defendant who establishes entitlement to the statutory immunity will not be subjected to trial. Section 776.032(1) expressly grants defendants a substantive right to not be arrested, detained, charged, or prosecuted as a result of the use of legally justified force. The statute does not merely provide that a defendant cannot be convicted as a result of legally justified force.

(Emphasis supplied)

In Dennis, the Court approved a procedure to conduct SYG immunity hearings developed by the trial court in Peterson v. State, 983 So.2d 27 (Fla. 1st DCA 2008). That procedure requires the defendant to file a motion before trial requesting immunity pursuant to Rule 3.190(b).

In Peterson, the First District Court of Appeals set forth the procedure to be followed after the defendant files the motion to initiate the process. The Court said at pages 29-30:

In the absence of a procedure for handling these matters, we find guidance from the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision in People v. Guenther, 740 P.2d 971 (Colo. 1987). In that case, the court decided that Colorado’s similar immunity statute authorized a trial court to dismiss a criminal prosecution at the pretrial stage and did not merely create an affirmative defense for adjudication at trial. Id. at 976. The court further determined that a defendant raising the immunity would have the burden of establishing the factual prerequisites to the immunity claim by a preponderance of the evidence. Id. at 980. The court imposed the same burden of proof as it would in motions for postconviction relief or motions to suppress. Id.

(Emphasis supplied)

The immunity hearing would resemble a trial with four important exceptions:

(1) The order in which the parties present their respective cases would be reversed with the defendant going first,

(2) Rather than being presumed innocent with the right to remain silent and no obligation to testify, the defendant would have the burden of proof,

(3) The burden of proof would be by a preponderance of the evidence (i.e., more probable than not), and

(4) The judge would be the fact-finder and decide the outcome, instead of a jury.

Judge Nelson told Mark O’Mara that, if the defense wanted an immunity hearing, she wanted to hold it prior to trial sometime during the last two weeks of April. She reserved those two weeks for the hearing and told O’Mara to file an appropriate motion prior to that time, if the defendant decided to ask for one.

At the hearing on Tuesday, she asked him if he still wanted her to reserve those two weeks because she wanted to use that time to schedule other matters, if he did not intend to ask for a hearing, . He responded that he would not be asking for a hearing during those two weeks.

He added that he was not waiving the hearing; rather, he was considering “combining it with the trial.” She acknowledged that she understood he was not waiving the hearing. However, he did not request and she did not agree to combine it with the trial. Whether she will agree to do so has yet to be decided.

O’Mara would have to file a motion to dismiss pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.190(b) asking her to combine the immunity hearing with the trial and she would have to grant his motion for that to occur.

I published a post here two days ago in which I explained why combining the two matters could create constitutional error resulting in a reversal and remand for a new trial, if Judge Nelson denies the motion for immunity and the jury convicts the defendant.

There is little point to having an immunity hearing, if it is going to be combined with a trial at the risk of injecting constitutional error into the trial that requires convictions to be reversed and remanded for a new trial.

Finally, please know that I made a mistake in some comments earlier this week when I said Florida has a rule that requires immunity hearings to be held no later than 45 days before trial. Florida does not have such a rule. I recalled Judge Nelson’s statement that she wanted to schedule an immunity hearing not less than 45 days before the June 10 trial date, if the defense decided to request one, and mistakenly assumed there was a 45-day rule. I realized my mistake while researching to write this article. I apologize for any confusion that might have caused.

I note parenthetically that Florida could use such a rule, but it’s up to the Florida Supreme Court to decide whether to promulgate one.

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