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The Fundamental Error Doctrine in Appellate Review

In criminal proceedings, the first goal of every trial is ensure that fairness and partiality are preserved. There are rules of evidence and procedure to ensure that criminal proceedings are transparent and open, where everyone is provided the same opportunity to receive a fair and speedy trial, with effective assistance, in front of a jury of one’s peers. Every criminal defendant, after the initial proceedings have taken place and he/she is charged and sentenced for the offense that he/she was found to have committed, has the right to appeal the sentence. The appeal may be for different reasons, but for an appeal to go through, there has to be some question or claimed error that must be under review. Appellate courts are there to review the legal correctness of a lower court’s opinion and to determine, after reviewing the evidence, whether or not the lower court’s opinion aligns with similar rulings and the rule of law of the land.

Fundamental Error Doctrine

Sometimes an appeal may come due to a fundamental error. Though we give the criminal defendant the benefit of the doubt by stating that at the time of the initial proceeding he or she is innocent before proven guilty, the fundamental error doctrine states that it is assumed in an appellate review that there is no error, or if there was, it was a harmless error. According to the fundamental error doctrine, during the time of the initial proceeding, the criminal defense attorney should preserve for the record all errors that he/she notes that may have an effect on the outcome of the case. Even if the error is not recorded, it may still be presented if the appellate court is persuaded to review it. To be fundamental, the error must go to the foundation of the case, the merits of the action, or a denial of one’s due process rights.

Harmful vs. Harmless Errors

Once the appellate court is persuaded to review the error, it must decide whether the error, if found to exist, was harmful or harmless. A harmful error is one that affects the ultimate outcome of the case. A harmless error is one that its existence or absence would still lead the jury or judge to come to the same conclusion.

The Creation of the Third Exception For Unpreserved Errors: Where Age is a Critical Element of the Crime

While errors do happen in criminal proceedings, their effect on the life of a criminal defendant could be staggering. According to a recent Florida Supreme Court case, Monroe v. State of Florida, the difference between life in prison and a lesser offense was based on a matter of days. According to the details of the case, the age of the criminal defendant, who was charged with multiple counts of sexual battery of a child under the age of twelve years old and lewd and lascivious molestation of a child under the age of twelve, was in question. The victim of the sexual battery and molestation was eight years old and did not remember the exact date that the incident occurred. The criminal defendant was either 17 or 18 years old depending on the date that the incident occurred. If the defendant were 18 years old, he would be charged as an adult and get life in prison. If he were 17 years old, he would receive a lesser sentence. The lower court charged him as an adult, even though the significant element of the crime, that the criminal defendant was 18 years old, was not proven.

The Holding of the Florida Supreme Court

The Florida Supreme Court found that the criminal defendant received ineffective assistance because his attorney did not preserve the fundamental error surrounding the central issue that the criminal defendant’s age was not proven, and therefore, he should not have received the mandatory sentence (life imprisonment) for an adult. The Florida Supreme Court opinion stated that a new exception to the fundamental error doctrine is that where age is the critical element of an offense, insufficient evidence to prove the defendant’s age should be considered even if it is not preserved on record as a fundamental error.

Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney in Fort Lauderdale

If you or a loved one have been arrested for committing a crime, it is important to speak with an experienced defense attorney like Kevin J. Kulik who can guide you through the criminal justice system. Contact Kevin J. Kulik today for a free and confidential consultation in the Fort Lauderdale area.

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