As a general principal, crime should not be committed anywhere. However, as a criminal defense attorney I realize that crimes happen due to a number of factors including, but certainly not limited to, animosity, provocation, opportunity, poor decision-making, and/or mental health or substance abuse issues. Wherever crimes occur, the Office of the State Attorney will look to punish those who commit those crimes.
A person should be aware that should an enumerated crime be committed on church grounds against a person who is there to attend a service, the prosecutor will have the ability to have that crime charged at one classification above its normal classification. This, in turn, increases the maximum potential sentence that a defendant could face.
Let’s look at the statute:
Fla. Stat. 775.0861
(1) For purposes of this section, the term:
(a) “Religious institution” is as defined in s. 496.404.
(b) “Religious service” is a religious ceremony, prayer, or other activity according to a form and order prescribed for worship, including a service related to a particular occasion.
(2) The felony or misdemeanor degree of any violation of:
(a) Section 784.011, relating to assault;
(b) Section 784.021, relating to aggravated assault;
(c) Section 784.03, relating to battery;
(d) Section 784.041, relating to felony battery;
(e) A statute defining any offense listed in s. 775.084(1)(b)1.; or
(f) Any other statute defining an offense that involves the use or threat of physical force or violence against any individual shall be reclassified as provided in this section if the offense is committed on the property of a religious institution while the victim is on the property for the purpose of participating in or attending a religious service.
(3)(a) In the case of a misdemeanor of the second degree, the offense is reclassified to a misdemeanor of the first degree.
(b) In the case of a misdemeanor of the first degree, the offense is reclassified to a felony of the third degree. For purposes of sentencing under chapter 921, such offense is ranked in level 2 of the offense severity ranking chart.
(c) In the case of a felony of the third degree, the offense is reclassified to a felony of the second degree.
(d) In the case of a felony of the second degree, the offense is reclassified to a felony of the first degree.
(e) In the case of a felony of the first degree, the offense is reclassified to a life felony.
For purposes of sentencing under chapter 921 and determining incentive gain-time eligibility under chapter 944, a felony offense that is reclassified under this subsection is ranked one level above the ranking under s. 921.0022 or s. 921.0023 of the offense committed.
* The crimes enumerated under this statute are: Arson; Sexual battery; Robbery; Kidnapping; Aggravated child abuse; Aggravated abuse of an elderly person or disabled adult; Aggravated assault with a deadly weapon; Murder; Manslaughter; Aggravated manslaughter of an elderly person or disabled adult; Aggravated manslaughter of a child; Unlawful throwing, placing, or discharging of a destructive device or bomb; Armed burglary; Aggravated battery; or Aggravated stalking.
Crimes Against Persons on the Grounds of Religious Institutions: What Does the State Have to Prove to Get The Crime Enhanced?
Unfortunately, the Florida Supreme Court has not issued standard jury instructions with regards to this statute. However, it is clear that a jury would have to find the enhancement beyond a reasonable doubt in order for a court to be able to sentence with the enhancement.
In reviewing the statute, it appears that a jury could be instructed as follows:
- Defendant committed [underlying crime] against [victim].
- Defendant committed [underlying crime] on the property of a religious institution.
- The victim was on the property for the purpose of participating in or attending a religious service at the time Defendant committed [underlying crime] upon the victim.
“Religious institution” is defined as a church, ecclesiastical or denominational organization, or established physical place for worship in this state at which nonprofit religious services and activities are regularly conducted and carried on and includes those bona fide religious groups that do not maintain specific places of worship. The term also includes a separate group or corporation that forms an integral part of a religious institution that is exempt from federal income tax under s. 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and that is not primarily supported by funds solicited outside its own membership or congregation.
“Religious service” is a religious ceremony, prayer, or other activity according to a form and order prescribed for worship, including a service related to a particular occasion.
Obviously, the State would have to prove each of the elements of the underlying crime first before any enhancement could be considered by the jury. Once that underlying crime is proved, the first element of the enhancement is likewise proven.
The next element would likely be proven through the use of a pastor or other employee/leader of the church to define the purpose of the property where the crime occurred. That person would also likely testify about the times of religious services on the property.
Lastly, the alleged victim would testify that he was on that property for the specific purpose of attending a religious service.
Should a jury be persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt, then the Court will have the ability to sentence the crime at one level higher than usual (a first-degree misdemeanor as a third-degree felony, etc.). This adds years of potential exposure on a sentence depending upon the crime.
As such, should a crime be committed by you or a loved on a church property, you need an attorney on your side. Give us a call today at 813.416.7965 to set up your free consultation!