Sunset falls over the Florida Supreme Court building (Phil Sears)
A man sentenced to 80 years in prison for scaring four men by firing his gun in the air asked the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday to reduce his sentence.
The justices expressed concern that the 10-20-Life law under which Ronald Williams was sentenced in 2010 was not meant to be applied this way but struggled to find a way to remedy his situation.
The 10-20-Life term refers to a mandatory 10 years for using a gun during a crime, 20 years for shooting it and life if someone is shot.
Jonathan Kaplan of Richard G. Lubin Attorneys at Law in West Palm Beach argued there was an ambiguity in the law that could be interpreted in Williams’ favor.
Assistant Attorney General Richard Egber claimed the language was plain and the Legislature intended offenders like Williams to be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
The challenged law states, “The court shall impose any term of imprisonment provided for in this subsection consecutively to any other term of imprisonment imposed for any other felony offense.”
Kaplan pinned Williams’ fate on the “any other” wording. He contended the Legislature meant this to apply to criminal acts after the immediate incident. In Williams case, he said a resisting arrest charge could qualify for a consecutive sentence.
He cited Mondesir v. State, a 2002 Second District Court of Appeal decision that said consecutive sentences “for any other felony offense” means that sentences received pursuant to the 10-20-Life law must be consecutive only to other felony sentences not subject to the 10-20-Life law.
The Supreme Court disagreed with Mondesir in Sousa v. State, but Kaplan said that was only to the extent that Mondesir’s “any other” definition referred to crimes taking place at different times.
Kaplan suggested the court interpret the statute to say, “The court shall impose any term of imprisonment … for any other felony offense not included in this subsection.”
Justice Peggy Quince argued that required adding language to the law.
Tee Up For Appeal
Justice Barbara Pariente criticized the statute, saying, “It seems totally offensive, and I can think of other gross injustices. It’s a long sentence.”
She said there seemed to be ambiguity, telling Egber that when the 10-20-Life bill was debated, “I don’t think anybody knew a guy who didn’t hit anybody was going to get 80 years.”
Justice Charles Canady told Kaplan he had a plausible argument, but Canady said the legislative intent with firearm offenses was to punish offenders to the fullest extent of that law.
“In the context of fullest extent of the law, your argument is in trouble,” Canady said.
Williams’ conviction followed an incident on Feb. 12, 2008, in Riviera Beach.
Jeremey Hoggins, Javaris Allen, Latodd Davis and Benjamin Butler were traveling together by car when they arrived at their apartment. As they got out, they heard someone calling them names.
Williams, who later told police he thought the victims had been flirting with him, called out gay expletives while he sat in his car.
Hoggins testified he didn’t know Williams but recognized him as a neighbor’s friend. The four exchanged words with Williams, who pulled a handgun and fired five shots in the air. The four men hurried into their apartment.
Riviera Beach Detective Patrick Webb took a statement from Williams. He said he never got out of his car, never pointed the gun at anyone and didn’t intend to harm anyone.
Hoggins testified Williams “couldn’t have shot in our direction because it would have hit the wall or one of us.”
Two years later, a jury found Williams guilty of four counts of aggravated assault with a firearm.
At sentencing, the state argued a 2010 decision from the Second District Court of Appeal, Scott v. State, required the trial court to sentence Williams to consecutive sentences.
Palm Beach Circuit Judge Joseph Marx was uncertain about that decision but was swayed by the state’s argument.
During sentencing, Marx said: “Mr. Williams, I would never give you 80 years on this case. … We have first-degree murder cases that people get less than this.”
But the judge then told Williams he was going to “tee up” the case for appellate review “because we’re going to have the Fourth District Court of Appeal tell us is it required in a case that there are separate convictions? … We’ll call it a mental injury.”
The Fourth District affirmed the sentence but certified the question to the high court.
Concluding his argument, Kaplan told the justices he had received letters from prisoners all over the state “all watching this case because of the harsh sentences.”