Florida Supreme Court rules man's car was weapon in Jax Beach case

High court upholds manslaughter conviction, sentence in pedestrian's death

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In a case that started with an altercation eight years ago at a Jacksonville Beach bar, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a car could be considered a “weapon” in increasing the prison sentence of a man convicted of manslaughter.

Adam Shepard was charged with manslaughter with a weapon after fatally striking pedestrian Spencer Schott with a car in January 2011 following the altercation inside Sneakers.  U.S. marshals recovered Shepard's Acura TL in Topeka, Kansas, a week after Schott's death. Shepard was arrested in Chicago in early February and extradited to Duval County where he was tried and convicted in July 2015.

Under state law, the use of a weapon bumped up the manslaughter charge from a second-degree felony to a first-degree felony, carrying a longer sentence. Shepard was sentenced to 45 years in prison.

Shepard's appeal centered on whether a car could be considered a weapon under a state reclassification law that allows such increased sentences. In ruling against Shepard, the Supreme Court made the somewhat-unusual move of backing away from a 1995 decision, which said a weapon must be “commonly understood to be an instrument for combat.”

Justice Jorge Labarga, in Thursday’s majority opinion, wrote that the law allowing sentences to be increased does not define “weapon” and that the 1995 decision too narrowly defined the term.

“Here, the plain and ordinary meaning of the word ‘weapon’ includes not only those objects designed with the purpose of injuring or killing another, such as guns, clubs, or swords, but also any object used with the intent to cause harm,” Labarga wrote in an opinion joined by Chief Justice Charles Canady and justices R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince, Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson. “This is evident in dictionary definitions, which consistently define ‘weapon’ to include objects used as weapons, even if they were not designed for that purpose.”

But Justice Barbara Pariente dissented, writing in part that the definition of a weapon should be left to the Legislature. She also argued that the majority opinion does not provide a “clear and consistent definition” of weapon and does not require proof that defendants intended to use objects as weapons.

“It is this all-encompassing definition of ‘weapon’ that would subject a defendant who uses any object to inflict harm on a person during the commission of a felony to a higher penalty under the reclassification statute, without any factual finding that the defendant intended to use the object to inflict harm,” Pariente wrote. “In other words, every felony involving harm to another through the means of some object, no matter how innocuous, would be subject to reclassification regardless of the defendant’s state of mind. I strongly disagree with this overly broad interpretation of the reclassification statute, which divorces the statute from the Legislature’s intended purpose.”

Criminal defense attorney Randy Reep, who is not affiliated with the case, said the Supreme Court's ruling will not impact cases that are closed, but it will change cases that have yet to be prosecuted. He said the ruling poses the questions: “What is a weapon?”, “What is the intent?" and  "Did the person mean to use the object as a weapon?”

"I will submit to you things like pavement, curb stomping. Somebody could now potentially, under this ruling, be viewed as a weapon," Reep said. "This is somewhat alarming because we are changing the definition of very critical things. Think of reckless driving that ends with great bodily harm. That now, if that vehicle could have been used as a weapon, that can now increase this -- aggravated battery, all the different things that may be limited by the definition of a weapon, it well opens the door." 

Shepard, now 37, was sentenced to 30 years in prison after the manslaughter charge was increased to a first-degree felony. A second-degree felony could carry a sentence of 15 years.

Reep said Thursday's ruling will impact Shepard's sentencing hearing. He believes Shepard will be subject to the original sentence of 45 years in prison and that it will likely stand. 

Schott suffered fatal head injuries when he was struck by the car after he and Shepard became embroiled in what a court document described as a “tussle” while watching a college basketball game at the Jacksonville Beach bar. Thursday’s ruling on the weapon issue upheld a decision by the 1st District Court of Appeal.

The 1995 ruling by the Supreme Court involved a case in which one man banged a victim’s head against the pavement during a fight outside an Orlando bar. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that pavement could not be construed as a weapon under that law that allows increased sentences.

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