Self-Defense and the Forcible Felony Exception in Florida – Crimins v. State

Self-defense may be one of the best known criminal defenses available to a person charged with a violent crime, but it is also probably one of the least understood. In practice, self-defense is an important tool for criminal defendants, but it requires significant proof of certain legal elements in order to be viable in any given case. In Crimins v. State, Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal explains the concept of self-defense as well as the so-called “forcible felony exception.”

John Crimins was charged with attempted first degree murder and aggravated battery stemming from an incident in which he allegedly attacked Jason Warren with a meat cleaver. Warren is the boyfriend of Moriah Mace, Crimins’ former girlfriend and the mother of his child. Crimins claimed that he was approaching Mace’s apartment when Warren came out swinging a baseball bat at him. After pinning the baseball bat to his side, Crimins said he removed the cleaver from his jacket and swung it at Warren in order to disarm him. Crimins further claimed that he was carrying the cleaver because Warren had previously threatened him.

At trial, a judge instructed the jury on the law as it relates to both self-defense and the “forcible felony exception.” Under Florida law, the use of deadly force is justifiable where necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm. A defendant cannot claim self-defense, however, when the person uses force while attempting to commit, committing or escaping after the commission of a forcible felony. The jury convicted Crimins of aggravated battery.

The Fifth District reversed the decision on appeal, ruling that the trial judge should not have instructed the jury about the forcible felony exception. As the court explained, the exception applies only where the defendant was committing a separate felony than the one for which he claims self-defense. Here, the court rejected the State’s argument that the attempted murder charge (for which Crimins was acquitted) counted as a separate crime for purposes of the exception. The court noted that both charges stemmed from the same underlying facts and that Crimins argued self-defense for each charge.

The court further ruled that the trial judge’s decision to give the forcible felony exception instruction was a fundamental error that deprived Crimins of a fair trial. “Crimins’ sole defense at trial to the count for aggravated battery against Warren was self-defense,” the court noted. While the State impeached much of Crimins’ testimony about his version of the incident, the court said “we cannot conclude that the evidence of guilt was overwhelming or that the claim of self-defense was extremely weak.”

Assault and battery are serious charges and a conviction can have irreparable consequences for your life and your future. If you are facing any assault or battery charge in Florida, you are well-advised to seek the advice of a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney right away.

The South Florida criminal defense attorneys at Anidjar & Levine are experienced in handling a wide range of criminal cases, including those involving assault and battery charges, throughout the state. Contact us to schedule a confidential consultation and discuss how Anidjar & Levine can aggressively defend your rights in court.

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