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Thornton v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, Second District

July 24, 2019



          Appeal pursuant to Fla. R. App. P. 9.141(b)(2) from the Circuit Court for Charlotte County; George C. Richards, Judge.

          Nathan S. Thornton, pro se.

          Ashley Moody, Attorney General, Tallahassee, and Michael Schaub, Assistant Attorney General, Tampa, for Appellee.

          BLACK, JUDGE.

         Nathan S. Thornton challenges the order denying his motion to correct an illegal sentence filed pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.800(a). Because the record establishes that Thornton's sentences for sexual battery with a deadly weapon are illegal, we reverse.

         On March 26, 1991, Thornton pleaded guilty to sexual battery with a deadly weapon in three separate cases as part of a global plea deal to resolve nine cases. Pursuant to the plea agreement, Thornton's collective term of imprisonment was to be capped at 100 years. As relevant here, at Thornton's sentencing, the trial court imposed concurrent ninety-year sentences on the three sexual battery convictions.

         In his motion to correct illegal sentence, Thornton contended that because the sexual batteries were life felonies but life sentences were not imposed, the maximum sentence for each offense was forty years. See § 775.082(3)(a), Fla. Stat. (1989) ("[F]or a life felony committed on or after October 1, 1983, [a defendant may be sentenced to] a term of imprisonment for life or [to] a term of years not exceeding 40 years." (emphasis added)). Thornton acknowledged that correction of his sentences would not affect his release date, but he asserted that if the sentences were corrected he would be eligible for various programs offered by the Department of Corrections. Upon review of Thornton's motion, the postconviction court ordered the State to respond to Thornton's allegations.

         In its response, the State contended that Thornton had entered his plea to the various charges with the understanding that he would receive a total of ninety years in prison. The State also noted that based on docket entries for which there are no records, sometime between October 1992 and June 1993 Thornton filed a motion to correct his sexual battery sentences. On October 29, 1993, the postconviction court entered an order finding that Thornton had withdrawn his motion but stating that Thornton would be permitted to bring his motion at a future date in the event there was a change in the law. The order provided that the then-current law did not bar the court from correcting the sentences by imposing consecutive sentences to reach a collective term of ninety years in prison.

         Thornton filed a second motion to correct illegal sentence in 1996, which, according to the State, also raised this issue. The court minutes from the hearing on the motion reflect that the postconviction court reminded Thornton that the court was not barred from imposing his sentences consecutively and that Thornton requested appointment of counsel. The record reflects that counsel was appointed but that nothing further was done on the motion. No records demonstrate that there was ever a ruling on the motion.

         The current motion was filed in November 2014, and no action was taken on it until Thornton refiled the motion in November 2017. In its response to the motion, the State argued that the motion should be denied because Thornton could be resentenced to a collective term of ninety years in prison through the imposition of consecutive sentences. The State relied exclusively on Martinez v. State, 216 So.3d 734 (Fla. 4th DCA 2017) (en banc), where the Fourth District affirmed the denial of a successive rule 3.800 motion: "Having determined that the trial court properly decided that the defendant's second rule 3.800(a) motion was collaterally barred as successive and there is no manifest injustice to the sentence imposed for count one, we affirm the trial court's denial of relief." Id. at 740-41. The State also asserted, without citation or support, that Thornton's stipulation in 1993 that he would be permitted to bring another rule 3.800 motion raising this issue "in the event that the state of the law changes" prevents him from bringing the current motion because the law has not changed.

         The postconviction court denied Thornton's motion, restating the procedural history of the case, finding that Thornton "is estopped from rearguing the same issue raised in a prior rule 3.800 motion," and citing State v. McBride, 848 So.2d 287, 291 (Fla. 2003), and Martinez. It is that order from which Thornton appeals.

         The State maintains that the postconviction court properly denied Thornton's motion. In doing so, the State points to Thornton's multiple attempts to have the issue resolved, yet acknowledges that each attempt "failed due to [Thornton] either withdrawing the motion or failing to pursue it." The State also notes that Thornton's overall term of imprisonment is unlikely to change because the court can impose legal sentences structured in such a way as to reach a collective ninety-year term of imprisonment. However, none of the State's arguments in favor of affirming the postconviction court's ruling suggest that the sentences actually imposed and at issue- individual ninety-year sentences on life felonies-are legal.

         Although the court found that Thornton was estopped from raising the same claim he had previously raised, "[a] postconviction court should not dismiss a claim as successive unless it was the specific issue raised by the prior motion and denied on the merits." See Williams v. State, 244 So.3d 1173, 1175 (Fla. 2d DCA 2018). And rule 3.800(a)(2) provides that "[a] court may dismiss a second or successive motion if the court finds that the motion fails to allege new or different grounds for relief and the prior determination was on the merits." Thus, rule 3.800(a)(2) reiterates the doctrine of collateral estoppel. Here, although Thornton has ...

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