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Williams v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

September 25, 2019

Joseph Williams, Appellant/Cross-Appellee,
State of Florida, Appellee/Cross-Appellant.

         Not final until disposition of any timely and authorized motion under Fla. R. App. P. 9.330 or 9.331.

          On appeal from the Circuit Court for Leon County. Martin A. Fitzpatrick, Judge.

          Andy Thomas, Public Defender; and John Knowles and David Henson, Assistant Public Defenders, Tallahassee, for Appellant/Cross-Appellee.

          Ashley Moody, Attorney General, and Heather Flanagan Ross, Assistant Attorney General, Tallahassee, for Appellee/Cross-Appellant.

          Kelsey, J.

         Appellant challenges his judgment and sentence for tampering with a witness in the investigation of a first-degree felony punishable by life. The State also appealed, challenging the trial court's imposition of a downward-departure sentence. We consolidated the two appeals for all purposes. The first issue is a purely legal question of statutory interpretation: whether the witness-tampering statute, section 914.22(3) of the Florida Statutes, requires felony-level sentencing if the tampering occurred while a felony was charged and investigated, even if a jury later convicts of a lower-level crime. The second issue is whether the trial court properly imposed a downward-departure sentence. We have carefully considered all of Appellant's arguments, finding them without merit. We write to address Appellant's incorrect interpretation of the witness-tampering statute, and the trial court's improper downward departure. We affirm Appellant's convictions, and reverse and remand for resentencing on the witness-tampering conviction.

         The facts were largely undisputed. Appellant had been in a physical relationship with two women who themselves were in a relationship and wanted to have a baby. An incident occurred in which Appellant entered the first woman's residence, with the second woman also present; then he punched the first woman in the side of the head; and had an altercation with the second woman, including punching her in the face, as she tried to force him out.

         The State charged Appellant with two counts of burglary with assault or battery, a first-degree felony punishable by life (later dropping the second burglary charge since there was only one entry). While Appellant was incarcerated before trial, he persuaded a friend to contact the first victim and try to get her to drop the charges. The State then charged Appellant with harassing or tampering with a witness in a first-degree felony investigation.

         At trial, Appellant's defense to the burglary charge was that he had permission to enter the first victim's residence. After the jury began deliberations, defense counsel asked the trial court to add jury instructions for lesser-included offenses on the tampering charge in the event the jury concluded that Appellant had not committed a felony. The trial court declined to do so. The jury convicted Appellant of one count of misdemeanor battery, and found him guilty as charged of felony witness tampering.

         At sentencing, defense counsel requested a downward departure to reflect that although the witness-tampering charge arose during the investigation or prosecution of a charged felony, the jury had deemed the underlying act a misdemeanor, which the defense argued should relate back to reduce the level of the tampering crime charged. The State disagreed with the defense's statutory analysis, and requested an 86.1-month sentence, which was the bottom of the guidelines. The trial court commented orally that the recommended punishment "doesn't really fit the crime here, because of the issues I raised regarding conflicts in the evidence and the testimony from [the second victim]." The court imposed a downward-departure sentence of three years, with 161 days' credit for time served. The court provided the following written reasons for the downward-departure sentence:

Based on the evidence presented at trial, as opposed to the evidence alleged in the probable cause affidavit, Defendant should have been charged with Domestic Battery on [first victim]. While there is no statutory basis for departing from the minimum sentence reflected in the sentencing guidelines, the facts of this case do not support the ultimate sentence. Justice would not be served by sentencing this Defendant as though he was properly charged with a Life Felony of Burglary with a Person Assaulted when in fact the underlying facts as found by the Jury supported, at best, a charge of Domestic Battery.

         We reject Appellant's argument that the witness-tampering conviction should have been reduced to a misdemeanor to reflect the misdemeanor battery verdict. This argument is contrary to the plain language of the statute, which equates the level of the tampering offense with the level of the crime charged during the investigation. We also find that the trial court improperly entered a downward-departure sentence. We address the two issues in turn.

         1. Witness-Tampering Statute.

         Florida's witness-tampering statute, section 914.22(3), first defines the crime and then sets forth different levels of offense depending on the level of underlying ...

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