Justin Smith, Post-Conviction Relief under Florida Law: The Undue Process of the Evolutionary Refinement

57 Fla. L. Rev. 653 (2005) | | | |

INTRODUCTION :: “We might go further and say that even those laws which have been written down are best regarded as not unchangeable.”

Aristotle

“[T]hey are . . . promulgated established laws, not to be varied in particular cases, but to have one rule . . . for the favourite at Court, and the countryman at plough.”

John Locke

In the early morning hours of April 23, 1987, twenty-eight-year-old Clyde Timothy Bunkley made an error in judgment for which he may spend the rest of his life behind bars. He did not murder an innocent victim. In fact, he did not so much as lay a hand upon another person. His crime was not of that egregious nature for which the only proper punishment is a complete deprivation of freedom. Instead, he broke into an unoccupied Western Sizzlin’ restaurant at four o’clock in the morning while carrying an accessory he had always carried: his small pocketknife. For this crime, he has been sentenced to life in prison without parole.

At about the same time that a Florida appellate court affirmed Bunkley’s life sentence, a young Salvadore Arroyo entered an apartment with an open pocketknife in his hand. He was confronted by the apartment’s tenants and arrested soon afterwards. A jury convicted him of attempted armed burglary. The appellate court, however, reversed, finding that without evidence that the knife was used in a way likely to cause death or injury, Arroyo could be convicted of only attempted burglary.

One man gets life without parole while the other receives a five- year sentence. The disparity was not due to the whims of two different juries or to aggravating circumstances that made one crime more heinous than the other. Rather, the disparity resulted because an ambiguity in the law allowed the Arroyo court to properly require evidence of the defendant’s use of the pocketknife, while the Bunkley court failed to do so. Not based upon this evidence of use, Bunkley’s life sentence for burglarizing an unoccupied restaurant while carrying a small pocketknife is not only contrary to Florida law, but it also results in a punishment that is disproportionate to the crime.

Ten years later, the Florida Supreme Court had the opportunity to remedy this excessive punishment by retroactively applying the 1997 decision of L.B. v. State. Relying upon a 1951 Attorney General Opinion, the L.B. court had defined a common pocketknife as any knife possessing a blade of four inches or less in length. Instead of seizing this chance to properly apply the law to Bunkley’s case, the Florida Supreme Court characterized the 1997 decision as an “evolutionary refinement,” refused to apply it retroactively, and upheld Bunkley’s sentence for life in prison without the chance for parole.

Bunkley’s case offers insight into two competing principles that underlie the American justice system. As Aristotle long ago articulated, laws should not be stagnant but flexible-capable of evolving over time or adapting to the peculiar circumstances that arise in individual cases. Locke, however, later modified this principle by stating that laws should be applied with a certain level of consistency. Because the American legal system is premised on both notions, a delicate balance necessarily arises: laws must adjust to circumstances within each individual case, but defendants charged with the same crime should be adjudicated under the same principles of law.

These competing values of flexibility and consistency are especially difficult to balance in the areas of retroactivity and post-conviction relief. When we factor in due process issues, this balance becomes even more difficult to maintain. Unfortunately for post-conviction appellants like Clyde Timothy Bunkley, the Florida Supreme Court narrowly limits the purpose of post-conviction relief to the retroactivity analysis without focusing on the due process implications that may arise. Under this limited analysis, the Florida Supreme Court distinguishes between “jurisprudential upheavals,” which are major changes in the law that are applied retroactively, and “evolutionary refinements,” which are minor changes that do not receive retroactive treatment.

In this Note, I explore Florida’s standards for post-conviction relief. I argue that the current approach, by narrowly construing the purpose of post-conviction relief to a determination of whether a change in the law should be applied retroactively, fails to adequately protect an individual’s Fourteenth Amendment Due Process rights. In Part II of this Note, I discuss the development of Florida’s post-conviction standards and argue that the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Fiore v. White has augmented a defendant’s ability to obtain post-conviction relief-an increase in individual protection that the Florida Supreme Court is reluctant to recognize. In Part III, I provide a case study analysis of Bunkley v. State to demonstrate the deterioration of due process rights caused by the Florida Supreme Court’s narrow interpretation of post-conviction relief. The Note concludes with some possible solutions to the arbitrariness that results from the Florida Supreme Court’s restrictive approach. These remedies may help protect due process rights and promote equal justice, so that one man’s pocketknife is not another man’s dangerous weapon, and one man’s acquittal is not another man’s life sentence.

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