In 2006 Alfred Rhiner filed a 3.800 Motion to Correct an Illegal Sentence, which was ultimately denied by the 20th Circuit Court, and then Per Curiam Affirmed (PCA) in the Second District Court of Appeals. The following Legal Perspective addresses the unconstitutionality of Florida's common practice of giving out Natural Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentences.
The archaic practice of Natural Life sentences is something that will erode the foundation of any civilized society. A lack of forgiveness and mercy in todays’ society, ultimately weakens it as a whole. To spend the rest of one's life (40-80 years in prison) for a criminal act that many times defines one day of one's life, offers little chance for redemption. A world without redemption is a world without change.
One cannot help but cringe when looking at the ugly truth of the actual historical reasoning behind the origin of Florida's "Life" sentence. An outdated draconian law that goes back to 1866 as the crop holders of yesterday wanted to reintegrate slavery back into their society. Sadly, this belief system is still alive in today's culture and though crop holders are basically a thing of the past, shareholders are not.
Back in 1866, during Florida's first post war state government, the legislature passed harsh discriminatory laws directed against blacks. These so-called Black Codes represented an attempt by former slave owners (i.e., Florida Governor David S. Walker, who had been a slaveholder, a Whig and served in both houses of General Assembly and State Supreme Court when these prejudicial laws were put in place) to re-institute the slave market back into their system.
The theory of white supremacy would permeate statutory and constitutional law. By 1867 a series of Jim Crow Laws enacted would ensure that blacks would be subjugated to a status suggestive of social, if not complete legal and physical bondage.
Three north Florida ex-slave holders (C.H. Dupont, A.J. Peeler, and M.D. Papy) were appointed to the interim committee on Freedman's affairs and they prefaced their report to the General Assembly with a characterization of slavery as a benevolent institution. They defined it as the happiest and best-ever design for a laboring population and desired to preserve as much as possible the "good" qualities of slavery.
In 1868 the legislature authorized Commissioner of Public Institutions to lease prisoners at their discretion. In 1869 the Freedman's Bureau referred 20 old and destitute negros to help at the Governor's Office, then to Chattahoochee prison for the rest of their lives. This was a common theme and was considered that the lucky ones would be beat and sent to prison for the rest of their lives (the unlucky ones would be hung).
In 1870 Governor Reed urged more prisoners to be leased and many blacks going before white southern judges received indefinite sentences to spend the rest of their lives in prison (life sentences). The white aristocratical society wanted their slaves back and could only do this by manipulating the laws.
The supremacy ideology was at risk of being stripped of its identity and by the negro becoming free, life as the upper class knew it was over. They would have to till their own ground and spend money on what use to be free labor. They would have to find a way to keep life as they know it and they would be bringing slavery back in the guise of "life sentences".
Not until 1885 when the righteous framers of the Florida Constitution attempt to curtail this egregious wrong by amending three evils:
a.) involuntary servitude/slavery without being duly convicted,
b.) indefinite imprisonment, and
c.) no fixed penalties for crimes that could distinguish the difference between felonies and misdemeanor.
Ever since 1885, Florida's Constitution has banned indefinite imprisonment and going against our Constitution would clearly be unlawful. A point expressed by the Florida District Court, "Certainly...the judicial system itself must follow and obey the law." Hayes v. State, 598 So. 2d 135, 138 (Fla. 5 DCA 1992).
The Court further noted that, "...an institution - the Judicial System - charged with the duty to punish illegal conduct must not, itself, be seen to engage in illegality." Sanders v. State, 698 So. 2d 377, 378 (Fla. 1 DCA 1977).
As the honorable Supreme Court Chief Justice Arthur J. England Jr. pointed out in his dictum in Alvarez at 14, "...moreover, if the net effect of a penal statute is to provide an indefinite term of imprisonment, the law is at odds with Article 1, Section 17 of our Florida Constitution."
The premise of an indefinite Life sentence was to unjustly sentence a person to indentured servitude for the rest of their life. There is no consideration for rehabilitation or amenability to re-enter society for a person who has clearly shown change, growth and development to the degree that they would be an asset to any community within our society.
The Honorable Supreme Court Chief Justice Arthur J. England Jr. pointed to this fact in his dictum in Alvarez at 14,"...moreover, if the net effect of a penal statute is to provide an indefinite term of imprisonment, the law is at odds with Article 1, Section 17 of our Florida Constitution.
A SOLUTION TO FLORIDA'S LIFE SENTENCES
ARTICLE 1, SECTION 17 OF
THE FLORIDA CONSTITUTION
Excessive fines, cruel and unusual punishment, attainder, forfeiture of estate, indefinite imprisonment, and unreasonable detention of witnesses are forbidden.
The Supreme Court in Ratliff v. State, 914 So. 2d 938 (Fla. 2005), found that, "Although no person can predict the maximum length of time which can be served by a prisoner under a sentence of Life, this in itself does not render a Life sentence impermissably indefinite."
The Ratliff Court relied on Alvarez v. State, 358 So. 2d 10, 12 (Fla. 1978), and ruled that, "Although in Alvarez we addressed under Article 1, Section 17 of the Florida Constitution a sentence that involved a term of years and not a life sentence, the reasoning underlying our decision in Alvarez is equally applicable to a life sentence."
It further explains that just because someone will die in prison does not make a sentence indefinite this is, of course, negating the fact that life expectancy is not what is forbidden.
EXCESSIVE, INDEFINITE IMPRISONMENT, AND FORBIDDEN
Under Ratliff's rationale "indefinite imprisonment" is to be interpreted as "vague imprisonment" (or more precise, "undefined imprisonment"), rather than "being placed in prison for an indefinite/infinite amount of time". This is a point that totally misses the mark, and fails to answer whether Florida's "Life" sentences are constitutionally illegal.
Article 1, Section 17 of the Florida Constitution addresses "Excessive Punishment", and the word "excessive" means "too much, or too great an amount". The word "Excessive" expresses a level of time or measure, but in no way does it express "vagueness" either vagueness exist, or does not exist. By law there can be no vagueness or ambiguity of any amount, so excessive vagueness holds no weight.
On another note, the word "indefinite" means, either 1.) "vague", or 2.) "for an unlimited period". The combination of "excessive" and "indefinite" is conjunctive in nature, and clears up any misunderstanding that would have existed had "indefinite" stood alone without "excessive".
It is simple logic when one combines "Excessive Punishment" with the words "indefinite imprisonment is forbidden" to only have one meaning, "being placed in prison for an indefinite amount of time is forbidden".
Courts have also determined that a "life without the possibility of parole" (LWOP) sentence is not an "indefinite sentence", but an "indeterminate sentence". Two sentences distinct in their differences 1.) an indeterminate sentence deals with vagueness/unable to clearly determine, and 2.) an indefinite sentence deals with an unlimited, or infinite amount of time.
In Carnley v. Cochran, 118 So. 2d 629, 632-633 (Fla.1960), the Supreme Court clearly explains that an "indeterminate sentence" has 2 prongs. Without one of these prongs, it would no longer be an indeterminate sentence prong 1.) is "deterrence from crime", while prong 2.) is "rehabilitation" to the point of "offering him every chance to re-establish himself as an useful member of society".
The LWOP sentence only meets the first prong, and thus "life without the possibility of parole" has no such offer, and cannot be an "indeterminate sentence". No matter what the Defendant's rehabilitative intentions establishes, his release date under "life without parole" will never move from its non-existing date of 99/98/9999.
In Carnley, the Supreme Court explained an indeterminate sentence "is not subject to the infirmity of indefiniteness", thus the Carnley Court is at odds with the Ratliff Court as "life without parole" is subject to the infirmity of indefiniteness.
In this instance we are dealing with a very "black or white" situation where no gray areas exist. If it does not meet both prongs, then it is not an indeterminate sentence, but rather a determinate sentence that is forbiddenly indefinite. Closing our eyes to such clear unconstitutionality is to void the Constitution's power to govern our laws, and in so doing, manipulates not only the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law, also.
STATE OF FLORIDA'S OWN ADMISSION
In Roberts v. State, 27 FLW D1539 (Fla. DCA 2002), "...a life sentence is indefinite, making one-third indeterminate."
In Kosek v. State, 448 So. 2d 57, 58 (Fla. DCA 1984), "Six one hundred year sentences are definite. The same cannot be said for a life sentence."
Florida Administrative Code 33-603.402(1)(a)5 states, "...if serving a sentence with no definite term, that is a life sentence. "
By Florida Statutes being govern by legislative intent, and the Administrative Codes being governed by the statutes it is abundantly clear that the legislative intent was "indefinite imprisonment" when they established "life without the possibility of parole".
The Courts of Florida are bound to make rulings by interpreting the legislative intent of the statutes, and punishments, thereof. As such, the Courts cannot turn a blind-eye to the clear meaning of the Constitution, statutes, or the fact that legislation unconstitutionally intended to instill indefinite imprisonment into the statutes.
COURTS HAVE THE POWER TO STRIKE
The Courts have the power, and duty to strike down an action of legislature, if provisions of an act clearly violates some expressed or implied constitutional inhibition see, Halley v. Adams, 238 So. 2d 401 (Fla. 1970). Simply put, it is not the Constitution's duty to uphold legislative intent, but legislative intent to uphold the Constitution.
Once again, "...moreover, if the net effect of a penal statute is to provide an indefinite term of imprisonment, the law is at odds with Article 1, Section 17 of our Florida Constitution."
It is indisputable that "the law is at odds with Article 1, Section 17 of the Florida Constitution", for when one combines "Excessive Punishment" with "indefinite imprisonment" and "forbidden" the only interpretation that can be made is "being placed in prison for the rest of your natural life is forbidden".