July 30, 2020

L.T. v. State, --- So. 3d ---, No. 1D19-3032, 2020 WL 1898866 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. Apr. 17, 2020)

Juvenile defendant was arrested and taken into custody for molesting another minor. An attorney filed a Notice of Appearance (NOA) asserting that she would act as the victim’s legal counsel, and also directed “that copies of all future pleadings, papers, and communications be directed to” her. A month later, a second attorney filed a NOA on behalf of the victim, with the same instructions. Defendant moved to strike the Notices of Appearance and other motions filed by the victim’s attorneys reasoning that, because the victim was not a party to the criminal case, she lacked standing to request such relief. The trial court granted defendant’s motions to strike the Notices and entered an order finding “there is no express language contained in [Marsy’s Law] that allows the victim or the victim’s representative to file a Notice of Appearance on behalf of the victim and become a party to criminal proceedings.” The trial court then proceeded to hold the plea hearing and allowed input from the victim’s attorneys. Over the victim’s objection, the trial court accepted defendant’s no contest plea and scheduled a sentencing hearing. The trial court ordered the State to consult the victim’s attorneys regarding preparation of the predisposition report and to allow them to “review the file and discoverable material that was turned over to the defense” and to have access to the Presentence Investigation Report. The victim filed the petition for writ of prohibition (that the appellate court treated as a petition for writ of certiorari) that is at issue in this case, claiming her rights under Marsy’s Law were violated. On review, the court first distinguished “standing” and “party status.” The court noted that although Marsy’s Law clearly created legally cognizable interests for victims giving them standing in criminal cases, it did not create party status. The court further noted that the victim’s attorneys’ NOA’s were not general notices establishing representation by an attorney, but rather they went many steps further by demanding “that copies of all future pleadings, papers, and communications be directed to” them. The NOA’s language and demands, coupled with several other motions filed by the victim, led the court to conclude that the victim “improperly presumed that she was to be regarded as a party of record in the criminal case.” The court then pointed to the Florida Rule of Judicial Administration that states, “by serving and filing, on behalf of a party, the party’s first pleading or paper in the proceeding,” concluding that the plain language requires party status as a precondition to the filing of an NOA. The court found that the trial court allowed the victim to participate in the proceedings to the extent required by Marsy’s Law. And since there was no explicit language in Marsy’s Law that grants a victim party status, it found no clear violation of established law. In finding no error, the court cautioned that “[t]his opinion should not be misconstrued as declaring that Marsy’s Law does not support a victim’s filing of some form of notice of election to exercise rights or of legal representation in a criminal proceeding.” Nevertheless, the court concluded that under the facts of this case—where the victim’s NOA’s and discovery motions demanded what it concluded were specific party status rights and privileges—the lower court’s dismissal of the NOA’s did not depart from clearly established principles of law.