The Florida Supreme Court is considering a case that raises the limits of state law in a case with a facially excessive sentence. Ronald Williams, 29, fired five shots in the air to scare off what he said were four gay men flirting with him. He was conviction in 2010 of four counts of aggravated assault. However, the trial judge said that state law required that each count — effectively each bullet — be sentenced consecutively rather than concurrently. The result is an excessive 80 year sentence.
Even at 20 years, the sentence would have been remarkably tough and many would argue excessive. However, 80 years is unbelievable. Yet, in oral argument, one of the most liberal members of the Court expressed doubt that the Court could do anything about it in light of the state’s 10-20-life law.
The prosecutors are pushing to keep the mandatory language and preserve the 80 year sentence. The defense however noted that, while the 10-20-life was being debated in the Legislature, a summary of the bill in the Florida House of Representatives stated “this does not prohibit a judge from imposing the sentences concurrently.” The biggest problem is the language of the law.
The law says “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.” While the defense argued that consecutive sentences applied only to felonies unrelated to the gun offense, Justice Barbara Pariente noted the problem with the “shall” verb: “There’s no question this is a grossly disproportionate sentence and it may not have been what the Legislature intended. But I still don’t see how ‘shall’ can mean ‘may.'” Justice Charles Canady also noted that the legislature stated in another section of the 10-20-life law that said all offenders should be punished to the “fullest extent of the law.”
That would leave a sentence that should shock the conscience of the court. The problem is that the Supreme Court has effectively gutted the limitation on such sentencings under the Eighth Amendment cruel and unusual punishment clause. In Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63 (2003), the Court ruled that it did not violate the Constitution for a California jury to impose a 50 years to life sentence under its three-strikes law for a man convicted of shoplifting nine videotapes from a KMart. These petty theft charges would normally be treated as misdemeanors with a $150 fine, but the court and prosecutor insisted on treating them as a felony to trigger the three-strikes law.
On the same day, the Court upheld the sentence of Gary Ewing who stole three golf clubs worth $399 each from the pro shop of the El Segundo Golf Course in El Segundo, California. Again, the Court in Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11 (2003), upheld the 25-to-life sentence under California’s three strikes law in a decision by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
The problem with this case is that it would be hard to see the deterrent or the retributive value of this sentence. Eighty years for four shots in the air would make a Sharia judge blush.