Is “Duress” a Valid Criminal Defense in Florida?
There are a number of affirmative defenses that a person accused of a crime in Florida may argue to a jury. One of the best-known examples is self-defense. Another example is “duress.” Duress–also called “necessity”–is not a justification for committing a crime, mind you, but it can excuse a defendant from criminal liability
The Six Elements of Duress
In simple terms, duress means that the defendant can prove they effectively had no choice but to commit the alleged crime due to some imminent threat or harm. Florida courts follow a six-part test when instructing a jury on an affirmative defense of duress or necessity. The defendant must establish all six elements to prevail. Those elements are:
- The defendant reasonably believed a danger or emergency existed which was not intentionally caused by the defendant.
- The danger or emergency threatened significant harm to the defendant or a third person.
- The threatened harm was real, imminent, and impending.
- The defendant had no reasonable means to avoid the danger or emergency except by committing the crime.
- The defendant’s crime must have been committed out of duress to avoid the danger or emergency.
- The harm that the defendant avoided must outweigh the harm by committing the crime.
The timeline of events is critical under these rules. In other words, if the defendant had any meaningful opportunity to avoid the danger or harm by taking some action other than committing the crime–such as calling the police–then the duress defense does not apply. The mere fact that the defendant may be too afraid to take such action is not, by itself, enough to support the defense.
A recent decision from the Florida First District Court of Appeal, Stallworth v. State, provides a useful illustration. In this case, the defendant and two other men decided to rob a known drug shed. The robbery quickly went south, however, and a gunfight broke out. Two other men died as a result.
Prosecutors charged the defendant with first degree murder. The defendant exercised his right not to testify at trial. But the jury heard a previously recorded interview that the defendant gave to the police. In this interview, the defendant said he was “scared and terrified” of his co-conspirator and said he only went through with the robbery because he was afraid the co-conspirator might shoot him for refusing.
The trial court declined to instruct the jury on an affirmative defense of duress. The jury found the defendant guilty. On appeal, the First District upheld the trial judge’s decision not to give the duress instruction. The appellate court noted that in the recorded interview, the defendant admitted the co-conspirator never made a “direct threat” against him. Absent such threat, there was no evidence of any “real, imminent, and impending” harm to the defendant had he decided not to participate in the robbery.
Contact the Joshi Law Firm Today
If you are accused of a serious felony like murder or manslaughter, never assume you can “talk your way out of it” with the police or the State’s Attorney. You need to work with an experienced Orlando criminal defense attorney who can help you in presenting your case. Contact the Joshi Law Firm, P.A. today to schedule a free consultation.