The 2nd District Court of Appeal said a Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge erred in 1997 when he sentenced a school truant officer to just house arrest and probation for having sex with a 13-year-old girl.
In a ruling Friday, the court said a downward departure from state sentencing guidelines that called for a prison term of nine to 15 years for Darron Whiting was improper. The court sent the case back to Judge Brandt Downey III for resentencing.
Since Whiting, 31, pleaded no contest to a lewd and lascivious charge with the understanding he would not go to prison, the appellate court said Whiting could, if he desires, withdraw his plea and proceed to trial.
Prosecutors said Whiting on Jan. 8, 1996, told a seventh-grader at Largo Middle School that he knew she hated school and could arrange for her to get out early.
The girl said Whiting took her to his Largo home and told her to come in while he made some calls. She said she asked him for a drink, and he gave her a 50-50 mix of whiskey and cranberry juice. He also gave her marijuana to smoke.
He then suggested they play a stripping game, prosecutors said. They had sex shortly afterward.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Brandt Downey, over the objection of prosecutors, offered a plea deal to Whiting because of his remorse, lack of a prior record and because the crime was conducted in an unsophisticated manner.
Whiting pleaded no contest in exchange for a sentence of two years house arrest followed by five years probation.
The appeals court, however, ruled that none of the reasons cited by the circuit judge for a downward departure was appropriate.
First, lack of a prior record, the court said, is already taken into account in sentencing guidelines.
Also, Whiting "merely uttered a brief apology for the pain he caused the victim's family, as well as his own. He did not otherwise express any regret as to his actual conduct, nor did he acknowledge any wrongdoing."
Finally, the appellate court said the facts of the case did not demonstrate a lack of sophistication.
Whiting could not be reached for comment Friday.