“Longstanding Consistent Definition of “Conviction” Requires an Adjudication”

“Longstanding Consistent Definition of “Conviction” Requires an Adjudication”

Florida Supreme Court

On February 11, 2016, the Florida Supreme Court clarified what has been its longstanding, consistent interpretation of the term “conviction.”  In Clarke v. United States, 780 F.3d 1131 (11th Cir. 2015), the Court of Appeals certified the following question to the Florida Supreme Court:  “For purposes of Fla. Stat. § 790.23(1), “does a guilty plea for a felony for which adjudication was withheld qualify as a “convict[ion]”?”

The issue before the court in Clarke dealt with a Federal Indictment and subsequent conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), which makes it a Federal offense for a person convicted of a prior felony to possess a firearm or ammunition.  The conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), was based on a prior guilty plea and subsequent withhold of adjudication, before a Florida State Court.  Nevertheless, as is common, the defendant was indicted for among other charges, violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).  The United States predicated the charge based on the defendant’s prior felony withhold of adjudication.

Clarke should finally provide relief to defendants indicted under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), when such charge is predicated on a prior withhold of adjudication.  Federal criminal defense practitioners have long argued, with no luck, that a withhold of adjudication under Florida law does not constitute a “conviction.”  Federal prosecutors would indict defendants based on a prior withhold of adjudication by arguing it constituted a conviction, they would secure convictions, and those convictions were upheld by the 11th Circuit.

The Florida Supreme Court recognized in Clarke that “the Eleventh Circuit has expressed its doubts about whether this Court holds that “conviction,” for purposes of section 790.23(1), can be proven where adjudication was withheld as to the prior felony offense.”  In response, the Florida Supreme Court “recognized the existence of a longstanding, consistent definition of “conviction” that requires an adjudication.”

Whether these holdings may be applied retroactively will be the next issue facing Appellate Courts.  It will be interesting to see how the 11th Circuit handles this issue in Clarke, and also what relief may be available to those individuals serving sentences for convictions under 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1), predicated on a prior withhold of adjudication.

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