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Florida Supreme Court rules judges can exceed maximum penalties in some cases

TALLAHASSEE — Judges can exceed maximum penalties for serious crimes committed with firearms in some cases under what's popularly known as the "10-20-Life" law, a divided Florida Supreme Court said Thursday.

The 4-3 opinion resolved a conflict among lower courts and upheld a 35-year sentence for Charles Mendenhall, who was convicted in 2007 of attempted murder in Lake County. If not for the 10-20-Life law, Mendenhall's maximum penalty would have been 30 years.

The law sets a minimum mandatory sentence for certain crimes, which means convicts must spend at least that much time in prison before they can be released regardless of their total time. The crimes include murder, burglary, robbery, rape and drug trafficking.

The minimum mandatory is 10 years if a crime is committed with a firearm, 20 years if the weapon is discharged and 25 years to life if someone is seriously injured or killed.

The majority justices said the latter provision covered Mendenhall's case.

The 1999 law championed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush gives judges the discretion to exceed maximums for various degrees of crimes set by the state's general sentencing statute, the majority justices ruled. Mendenhall's case involved a first-degree felony.

The unsigned opinion rejected an argument by Mendenhall's lawyers that the law is ambiguous because it doesn't specifically give judges that authority.

In a dissent, Justice Barbara Pariente wrote that the Legislature easily could have said the 10-20-Life law overrode the sentencing statute, but it did not.

The law's actual title is "Possession or use of a weapon, aggravated battery; felony reclassification; minimum sentence," Pariente noted, underling "minimum sentence" for emphasis.

That means the title itself indicates the law was meant to change minimum, not maximum, sentences, she added.

Due to that ambiguity, she wrote, the statute should be interpreted most favorably to Mendenhall.

Justices Peggy Quince and James Perry joined her dissent. The majority was made up of Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justices R. Fred Lewis, Ricky Polston and Jorge Labarga.

Florida Supreme Court rules judges can exceed maximum penalties in some cases 10/29/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 29, 2010 1:15am]

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