Zimmerman Case Puts More Florida Laws Under Scrutiny

In the course of following the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case, the entire country learned about Florida’s so-called “Stand Your Ground” law.  In case you’ve been under a rock for the better part of a year and a half, Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch volunteer who encountered 17-year-old Trayvon Martin one night in his gated community.  After calling the police, Zimmerman and Martin got into an altercation that resulted in Zimmerman fatally shooting Martin. While the defense team for Zimmerman did not actually use Florida’s Stand Your Ground law as a defense at trial, the case itself brought that law and others like it from other jurisdictions under intense scrutiny.  Protests such as this sit-in reported by The New York Times sprung up around the nation against these types of laws, passed in the name of self defense.

Zimmerman’s recent acquittal has brought another Florida law into the limelight.  As reported by NBC News, Zimmerman’s attorneys are preparing a motion that would ask the State of Florida – i.e. the Florida taxpayers – to pick up part of the tab for his defense, to the tune of almost $300,000.  The motion would be based on a Florida law that “says a defendant who’s acquitted isn’t liable for costs associated with his or her case,” according to NBC.

Like good little lawyers, we looked up the statute.  It states as follows:

(1) A defendant in a criminal prosecution who is acquitted or discharged is not liable for any costs or fees of the court or any ministerial office, or for any charge of subsistence while detained in custody. If the defendant has paid any taxable costs, or fees required under s. 27.52(1)(b), in the case, the clerk or judge shall give him or her a certificate of the payment of such costs, with the items thereof, which, when audited and approved according to law, shall be refunded to the defendant.
(2) To receive a refund under this section, a defendant must submit a request for the refund to the Justice Administrative Commission on a form and in a manner prescribed by the commission. The defendant must attach to the form an order from the court demonstrating the defendant’s right to the refund and the amount of the refund.
Fla. Stat. Ann. § 939.06.  A few decisions out of Florida have clarified the statute.  First, the public policy behind the statute is fairly obvious, but it’s worth repeating.  The purpose of the law is, as stated by the Florida District Court of Appeals, is to “protect a defendant from costs when he is innocent or when the state fails to pursue a vigorous prosecution.”  State v. Crawford, 378 So. 2d 822, 823 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1979).
It should also be noted that not everything that Zimmerman–or his lawyers–spent on behalf of his defense effort is eligible for reimbursement; only “taxable costs” are provided for in the statute.  The Supreme Court of Florida has provided some guidance here:
Given its plain meaning, the relevant portion of this statute simply says: No acquitted criminal defendant shall be liable for any court costs or court fees, any costs or fees of a ministerial government office, or any charges for subsistence, and that if such a defendant has paid any of these taxable costs he or she shall be reimbursed by the county.
Bd. of Cnty. Comm’rs, Pinellas Cnty. v. Sawyer, 620 So. 2d 757, 758 (Fla. 1993).  Examples of costs that would not be reimbursable under Florida law include investigative costs, private attorneys’ fees, deposition transcription fees, video deposition fees, process service fees,  expert witness fees, and fees for transcription of excerpts of trial.  Id.; Hillsborough County v. Martinez, 483 So.2d 540 (Fla. Ct. App. 1986); Justice Admin. Comm’n v. Neighbors, 927 So. 2d 218, 219 (Fla. Ct. App. 2006).

It will be interesting to see if this law receives the same kind of attention and criticism as Stand Your Ground.  The Zimmerman case continues to make news and provide a microscope with which to view the rule of law and other issues of socio-economics and race in America.  Fascinating stuff.

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