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Downward Departure Sentence When Specialized Medical Treatment Is Needed

Under Florida law, under some circumstances a sentencing court may impose a "downward departure" sentence, one that is below the lowest permissible sentence. Florida Statutes list certain mitigating circumstances that a trial court may consider when determining whether to issue a downward departure sentence. In particular, the statutes provide that the trial court may depart from the lowest permissible sentence in cases where a defendant needs, and would benefit from, specialized medical treatment for a physical disability or for a mental disorder that is not related to substance abuse or addiction.

In State v. Chubbuck, the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal determined that the defendant was not required to prove that the specialized medical treatment which he needed was not available in the Florida prison system when requesting a downward departure sentence. The Supreme Court of Florida upheld the decision on appeal in 2014.

Background and procedural history

In 2008, the defendant was charged with trafficking in cocaine, possession of cocaine with intent to sell, possession of drug paraphernalia and for being a felon in possession of a firearm or ammunition. Under the terms of a plea agreement, the defendant pled guilty to all charges in exchange for five years probation and no incarceration.The trial court placed the defendant on probation, as agreed, but added a condition that the defendant must abstain from using alcohol or illegal drugs and submit to random urinalysis testing during the probation period.

In 2010, the defendant was charged with a violation of probation after cocaine was detected in a urine sample. At the violation of probation hearing, evidence indicated that the defendant was a 66-year-old former veteran who was very ill. The defendant requested that the trial court terminate his probation and sentence him to the time he had served in jail while awaiting his hearing so that he could continue receiving interferon treatments at the Veterans' Hospital.

After the trial court granted the defendant's request, the state filed an appeal in the Fourth District. The Fourth District determined that the downward departure statute does not require the defendant to prove that the specialized treatment is unavailable in the Florida Department of Corrections. However, the appellate court ordered the case remanded for re-sentencing to allow the state a second opportunity to present evidence as to whether the specialized treatment was available in the Florida prisons.

The decision by the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court upheld the Fourth District's decision. The plain language of the downward departure statute does not require the defendant to prove that the required specialized treatment is unavailable in the Florida prisons. When requesting a downward departure sentence, the defendant has the burden of proving these three elements:

  1. The defendant has a physical disability or a mental disorder that is not related to substance abuse or addiction;
  2. The physical disability or mental disorder requires specialized treatment; and
  3. There is a reasonable possibility that the treatment will be successful.

The Supreme Court also agreed to send the case back to the trial court for a re-sentencing hearing to permit the state to present evidence regarding the availability of the required specialized treatment. Evidence of the availability of such treatment is a factor to be considered by the trial court when ruling on a request for a downward departure sentence.

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