In Marrero v. State, No. SC09-2390, Leonardo Marrero had been charged with criminal mischief. At trial, the State failed to prove the specific amount of damages, prompting Marrero to raise a motion for judgment of acquittal. The trial court reserved ruling on the motion, and the case went to the jury. After the jury asked the court whether it could find Marrero guilty absent proof of a specific monetary amount of damages, the trial court instructed the jury according to the standard instructions applicable to criminal theft. The jury convicted Marrero of felony criminal mischief based upon a finding that the property was valued at $1,000.00 or more. The trial judge thereafter encouraged Marrero to file a motion for new trial, noting her discomfort at the fact that the State had failed to prove the amount of damages. On appeal, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed Marrero’s conviction for felony criminal mischief, reasoning that “a trial court may conclude that certain repairs are so self-evident that the fact-finder could conclude based on life experience that the statutory damage threshold has been met.” (quoting T.B.S. v. State, 935 So. 2d 98, 99 (Fla. 2d DCA 2006)).
In its opinion issued on September 15, 2011, the Florida Supreme Court reversed the Third District’s application of the “life experience” exception. After reasoning that the State has the burden of proof as to each element of the crime, and that the amount of damage is but one element of felony criminal mischief, the Court next turned its attention to the “life experience” exception. The Court observed that application of the of the “life experience” exception would be problematic because the “life experience” of one jury member necessarily differs widely from the “life experience” of any other jury member. The Court also noted that the Third District erred in extending the “life experience” exception to Marrero’s criminal mischief case because the exception had only previously been applied to criminal theft cases. Ultimately, the Court reversed Marrero’s conviction for felony criminal mischief, and remanded for the trial court to enter a judgment for misdemeanor criminal mischief.
After first reading this opinion, I thought it was rather unremarkable. In my view, it is so obvious that the State has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt every element of a criminal offense that the Court should hardly have to waste time repeating that proposition. But then, the more I thought about this case, the more irritated I became. Why is it that several of Florida’s District Courts of Appeal would discard such a basic principle of our criminal justice system? Why allow prosecutors to avoid their constitutional duties? Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers to those questions. All I can say is that at least the right decision was made for Leonard Marrero, and that the next time this happens to someone else, this Florida criminal appeals attorney will be ready to take up the issue.