Court considers rule to tighten up sentencing paperwork.


Fourth District Court of Appeal Chief Judge Martha C. Warner said she was "shocked to learn" that criminal defendants are not served with copies of the most important documents in their cases: written judgments of conviction and sentence, and there is no requirement under current rules to do so.

She brought that problem to the attention of Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Major B. Harding, who in turn asked Robert Wills, chair of The Florida Bar Criminal Procedure Rules Committee, to address it.

The resulting emergency rule amendment to the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure, Rules 3.670 and 3.700(b), was argued at the Supreme Court October 6. (In addition, in a companion emergency petition, there were oral arguments addressing proposed changes to Rule 3.800 of the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure, as well as changes to the Florida Rules of Appellate Procedure, 9.010, 9.140 and 9.600.)

The dilemma surfaced because the Criminal Appeals Reform Act of 1996 mandates an unrealistic 30-day deadline for lawyers to bring up sentencing errors at the trial level, aimed at sparing the appellate courts that burden. And the law says appellate courts shouldn't consider sentencing errors if they're not properly preserved. Yet with the official paperwork breakdown, how are defendants supposed to have timely notices of their right to appeal? By not receiving sentencing documents, defendants have no way of knowing whether their sentences pronounced in open court are accurately reflected in the court files. Even public defenders don't always get the sentencing orders until more than a month after sentencing day.

"We were shocked, too," Wills told the court justices during oral arguments.

Several of the justices expressed dismay, as well -- especially when told that in some of the most overloaded criminal dockets in the state, such as Broward County, even the public defenders aren't receiving copies of their clients' sentencing paperwork so they can check for errors.

"It's hard to believe that the public defenders have put up with something that didn't provide for receiving a written copy of the judgment and sentence," Justice Barbara Pariente said. "How can we have a system with no document on this most important matter of sentencing?"

And Justice Charles Wells harkened back to his trial-court days, recalling how "the judge sat with a form with multiple copies -- like you can go buy at Office Depot -- and wrote it out with a pencil and gave it to all...

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