Like many states, Florida distinguishes misdemeanors from felonies based on the potential time an offender could face behind bars. Misdemeanors are less serious offenses that carry the possibility of up to a year in jail. More serious crimes that carry sentences of a year or more and up to life in prison or the death penalty are felonies.
This article will discuss misdemeanor penalties and sentencing options in Florida.
Florida divides misdemeanor offenses into two degrees.
Misdemeanors of the first degree are punishable by a jail term of up to one year and a fine up to $1,000. Examples of first-degree misdemeanors include battery, violating a restraining or protection order, and cyberstalking.
Misdemeanors of the second degree are punishable by a jail term of up to 60 days and a fine up to $500. Examples of second-degree misdemeanors include assault, prostitution, petit theft (less than $100), and disorderly intoxication.
Florida law also imposes enhanced penalties for repeat misdemeanor offenders, as well as misdemeanor crimes committed against vulnerable victims or motivated by prejudice or bias.
Repeat misdemeanors. Numerous misdemeanors carry enhanced penalties for repeat misdemeanor offenders. For instance, a second misdemeanor battery conviction carries a third-degree felony penalty, as does a third or subsequent petit theft conviction. Besides individual misdemeanor enhancements, the law deems those convicted of a fifth or subsequent misdemeanor as habitual misdemeanor offenders. They face a minimum sentence of six months in jail or residential treatment.
Victims. Committing certain offenses against vulnerable victims (such as the elderly or children) or protected professionals can also land a misdemeanor offender with a felony penalty. For instance, assault or battery of a police officer, firefighter, emergency health care provider, or public transit officer increases the penalty level for the offense—so a second-degree misdemeanor increases to a first-degree misdemeanor and a first-degree misdemeanor bumps up to a third-degree felony. Many of these enhancements are crime-based.
Bias crimes. Florida's hate crime enhancement applies to any crime motivated by an offender's prejudice against a victim for their race, color, ancestry, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, homeless states, or advanced age (65 and older). When an offender's motive is established, the offense must be reclassified to the next higher offense level (as described above).
Judges have broad discretion when sentencing misdemeanors. Jail time is only one option and often reserved for repeat or unremorseful offenders. When imposing a misdemeanor sentence, the judge will consider the circumstances of the crime, injuries or damages caused by the crime, and the offender's past history and amenability to rehabilitation. Another common consideration is whether addiction or mental health issues were at the root of the offense.
A judge can order one or a combination of sanctions, such as jail time, probation, split sentence, work release, treatment, community service, or restitution. Some offenders may be able to avoid a conviction or even criminal court if they qualify for a pretrial intervention program or community court. Those suffering from addiction or mental health issues might find help in a problem-solving court program. Below we'll review the different sentencing options and alternatives for misdemeanor convictions.
Judges can impose any jail term up to the maximum allowed by law. For a first-degree misdemeanor, a judge can impose any term up to a year, which could mean anything from spending a day to a year in jail. The same applies to second-degree misdemeanors except the maximum is capped at 60 days.
A judge can also order a split sentence, stay part of the sentence, or allow a defendant to serve jail time on nights or weekends. With a split sentence, the defendant usually serves a part of their sentence in jail and the remainder on probation. Judges can also stay execution of the sentence (basically hold off on sending the defendant to jail) and instead place the defendant on probation without any jail time. Another option is to allow the defendant to serve their sentence on nights, weekends, or another schedule that allows them to work or care for their family.
Probation allows a defendant to serve all or part of their sentence supervised in the community. To remain in the community, the defendant must agree to abide by conditions of probation. Failure to do so can land the defendant in jail. Conditions often include following all laws, reporting to a probation officer, abstaining from substances, working or attending classes, going to treatment, and paying restitution.
As noted above, a judge can order that probation be served after a jail sentence (split probation) or in lieu of a jail sentence. Supervised misdemeanor probation can last only six months. However, if alcohol contributed to the offense, probation can last one year.
Problem-solving courts include drug courts, mental health courts, veterans' courts, and others. Defendants may qualify to participate in a problem-solving court if addiction, mental health, or military service-related issues contributed to their criminal behavior. A judge may place a defendant in a problem-solving court as a condition of probation or as part of a pretrial intervention program (described below). In either circumstance, a defendant who participates in a problem-solving court must follow strict program rules and be monitored by a team of professionals.
Those participating in drug court while on probation will complete their sentence upon successful completion. Failure to abide by the terms can result in sanctions from the court or being sent to jail.
For those participating pretrial, the court will dismiss the charges upon successful completion. A court can also order a participant to continue in the program or put the case back on the criminal calendar if the defendant fails to comply with the program terms.
Florida authorizes additional pretrial intervention programs for first-time defendants or defendants who have no more than one nonviolent misdemeanor on record. The defendant must agree to abide by the program terms, which might include counseling, education, treatment, or supervision services. The administrator of the program will make one of the following recommendations at the end of the intervention period: dismiss the charges, continue the defendant on supervision, or resume prosecution of the case.
Only offered to certain misdemeanor defendants, community courts provide a non-adversarial way to address an offense. An advisory committee (a judge, state attorney, public defender, and coordinator) recommends to the presiding judge solutions and sanctions for the offense, taking into consideration the needs of the victim and defendant. For example, one Florida community court addresses the revolving door of petty crimes often associated with homelessness. Instead of racking up fines and jail time, the community court assists the defendant by ordering community-based punishments and services aimed at addressing the root cause of the offense.
Like many states, Florida requires prosecutors to file criminal charges within a certain time period. For misdemeanors, the time limits (called statutes of limitations) are two years for first-degree misdemeanors and one year for second-degree misdemeanors. A defendant can ask a judge to dismiss charges filed beyond these time limits.
All criminal convictions can have severe consequences that can continue long after a defendant is released from jail or has paid a fine. Talking to a Florida criminal defense attorney about your case is the best way to learn about the possible consequences of a criminal conviction, what to expect in court, and how best to protect yourself. An attorney can help you navigate the criminal justice system and obtain the best outcome possible given your particular circumstances.
(Fla. Stat. §§ 775.082, 775.083, 775.0837, 775.085, 775.0861, 775.0863, 948.08, 948.16 (2021).)