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State v. Ratliff

Florida Court of Appeals, Second District

November 3, 2017



         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Pinellas County; William H. Burgess, III, Judge.

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, Tallahassee, and Kiersten E. Jensen, Assistant Attorney General, Tampa, for Appellant.

          Howard L. Dimmig, II, Public Defender, and Maureen E. Surber, Assistant Public Defender, Bartow, for Appellee.

          SILBERMAN, Judge.

         The State seeks review of a postconviction order declaring unconstitutional two life sentences for the crimes of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder which Kevin Ratliff committed when he was a juvenile. The postconviction court granted relief under Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), and Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), as interpreted in Atwell v. State, 197 So.3d 1040 (Fla. 2016). The State argues that the court erred by granting relief without considering whether, due to the possibility of parole, Ratliff's life sentences constituted "de facto" life sentences. We reject this argument and affirm.

         In Miller, the Supreme Court held that it was a violation of the Eighth Amendment to impose a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a juvenile. 567 U.S. at 479. In Graham, the Supreme Court held that it was also unconstitutional to impose a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile convicted of a nonhomicide offense. 560 U.S. at 74-75. In Atwell, the Florida Supreme Court held that Miller and Graham also apply in cases in which a defendant sentenced to life in prison is eligible for parole in Florida. 197 So.3d at 1050.

         The question on appeal is whether, under Atwell, juveniles serving life sentences with parole eligibility are entitled to relief under Miller and Graham only if their presumptive parole release dates (PPRD) results in their sentences being "de facto" life sentences. We answer this question in the negative.

         In Atwell, the juvenile defendant had been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to a mandatory term of life in prison with parole eligibility. 197 So.3d at 1041. The defendant's PPRD was 2130 which the court noted exceeded his life expectancy and virtually ensured he would spend the remainder of his life in prison. The question before the court was whether the defendant's life sentence was constitutional under Miller. Id.

         The court answered this question in the negative, stating, "We conclude that Florida's existing parole system, as set forth by statute, does not provide for individualized consideration of Atwell's juvenile status at the time of the murder, as required by Miller, and that his sentence, which is virtually indistinguishable from a sentence of life without parole, is therefore unconstitutional." Id. The court explained three reasons for its holding. First, it was consistent with its prior cases which followed the spirit of Miller and Graham as opposed to "an overly narrow interpretation." Id. (citing Henry v. State, 175 So.3d 675 (Fla. 2015), cert. denied, 136 S.Ct. 1455 (2016)).

         Second, it was consistent with the mandate in Miller and Graham that courts sentencing juveniles consider how they are different and how those differences mitigate against life sentences. Id. at 1045. The court explained that Miller and Graham would not necessarily require resentencing if parole was available for "certain juvenile offenders 'whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity-and who have since matured.' " Atwell, 197 So.3d at 1048 (quoting Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718, 736 (2016)). However, Florida's existing parole system does not meet this standard because it gives primary consideration to the serious nature of the offense and the defendant's criminal record. Id. at 1049. "Importantly, unlike other states, there are no special protections expressly afforded to juvenile offenders and no consideration of the diminished culpability of the youth at the time of the offense." Id.

         The court's third reason for its conclusion was that it was consistent with Florida's post-Miller and Graham legislative intent. Id. at 1042. "Rather than offer parole as a means of complying with the principles established by the Supreme Court, the Florida Legislature chose instead to enact a wholly new and distinct sentencing framework for juvenile offenders, offering term-of-years sentencing options for trial courts and providing for a subsequent judicial review of lengthy sentences." Id.

         The court thus quashed the decision upholding the defendant's life sentence and remanded for resentencing under chapter 2014-220, Laws of Florida. Id. Under that framework, the juvenile's sentence would be reviewed after twenty-five years by a judge who must consider "among other factors, the juvenile offender's youth and its attendant characteristics at the time of the offense, the opinion of the victim or the victim's next of kin concerning the release of the juvenile offender from prison, and whether the juvenile offender remains at the same level of risk to society as he or she did at the time of the initial sentencing." Id. at 1043.

         In Marshall v. State, 214 So.3d 776, 777 (Fla. 2d DCA 2017), this court relied on Atwell to hold that a juvenile defendant sentenced to ninety-nine years with parole eligibility was entitled to relief under Graham. This court explained that the supreme court had clarified that it is not necessary for term-of-years sentences to be "de facto" life sentences for Graham to apply. Id. at 778 (citing Kelsey v. State, 206 So.3d 5, 10 (Fla. 2016)). Instead, "the Eighth Amendment will not tolerate prison sentences that lack a review mechanism for evaluating this special class of offenders for demonstrable maturity and reform in the future." Id. (quoting Henry ...

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