Bunkley v. Florida, 538 U.S. 835 (2003) (per curiam)

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on petition for writ of certiorari to the supreme court of florida

No. 02-8636. Decided May 27, 2003

Petitioner Bunkley had a pocketknife with a 21/2- to 3-inch blade in his pocket when he was arrested as he left an unoccupied restaurant. He was charged with first-degree burglary because his knife was classified as a "dangerous weapon" under Florida law, was convicted, and was sentenced to life in prison. Had the pocketknife not been so classified, his sentence could have been no more than five years. His conviction became final in 1989. Florida has exempted the "common pocketknife" from its weapons statute since 1901, and the relevant language has remained unchanged. In 1997, in a separate case, the Florida Supreme Court interpreted the meaning of the "common pocketknife" exception for the first time, including a pocketknife with a 33/4-inch blade within the exception. L. B. v. State, 700 So. 2d 370, 373. Bunkley then moved for state postconviction relief, alleging that his armed robbery conviction was invalid under L. B. because his pocketknife was shorter than 33/4 inches and could not therefore support a conviction involving weapon possession. The Circuit Court denied his motion, and the State District Court of Appeal affirmed. The State Supreme Court rejected Bunkley's claim, holding that L. B. was an evolutionary refinement in the law that did not apply retroactively.

Held: The Florida Supreme Court erred in failing to determine whether the "common pocketknife" exception encompassed Bunkley's pocket-knife at the time his conviction became final. The result here is controlled by Fiore v. White, 531 U. S. 225, which involved a Pennsylvania criminal statute that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court interpreted for the first time after Fiore's conviction had already become final. Under that interpretation, Fiore's conduct did not violate an element of the statute. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court's reply to this Court's certified question—that its interpretation merely clarified the statute's plain language—revealed that Fiore's conviction violated due process, because a State cannot convict a person without proving each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Application of Fiore's due process principles may render a retroactivity analysis unnecessary here. Fiore requires the Florida Supreme Court to answer whether, in light of L. B., Bunkley's 21/2- to 3-inch pocketknife fit within the state statute's "common pocketknife" exception at the time his conviction became final.


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