Duress or Coercion: An Excuse for Criminal Conduct?

Stannard v. State of Florida – Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeals

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In the State of Florida, duress or coercion is a recognized defense to crimes other than homicide. Duress is said to excuse criminal conduct where the actor is under an unlawful threat of imminent death or serious bodily injury, which threat caused the actor to engage in conduct violating the literal terms of the criminal law.

To be entitled to a charge on the defense of duress, the defense version of the evidence must demonstrate six elements:

  1. the defendant reasonably believed that a danger or emergency existed that he did not intentionally cause;
  2. the danger or emergency threatened significant harm to himself or a third person;
  3. the threatened harm must have been real, imminent, and impending;
  4. the defendant had no reasonable means to avoid the danger or emergency except by committing the crime;
  5. the crime must have been committed out of duress to avoid the danger or emergency; and
  6. the harm the defendant avoided outweighs the harm caused by committing the crime.

In this case, Mr. Stannard had been taking oxycodone for knee pain, but his prescription ran out and he was unemployed. He obtained some oxycodone on credit from a local drug dealer named Pops. When Stannard failed to pay what he owed Pops and his friends went to Stannard’s residence several times a month demanding payment. When Stannard could not satisfy his debt, the threats escalated to the point where Stannard was so afraid he moved to a new residence.

However, Pops found Stannard’s new address and continued to threaten him. Finally, the Pops and his friends took Stannard from his residence and placed in the back seat of a vehicle. Stannard testified at trial one of the men in the vehicle told him this was his last chance; either he “was going to pay up or he was going to be beat bad enough that his mom wouldn’t recognize him.” Pops took Stannard to a Walgreens Drug Store. Pops then gave Stannard a prescription that had already been filled out with his name and other information. Pops instructed Stannard he was to go into the Walgreens and fill the prescription to clear his debt.

Stannard went into Walgreens along with several of the Pops’s friends. These friends stayed within sight of Stannard the entire time he was in the store. Although they did not approach the pharmacist with Stannard, Stannard testified that they were watching him, and he was afraid. Stannard believed if he did not hand over the prescription, Pops would follow through with his theat to harm Stannard. After the prescription was filled, the men took the drugs from Stannard before they exited the store.

In his trial, Stannard argued that he had been compelled to act as he did because of the threats from Pops.

However, the trial court did not agree with Mr. Stannard and refused to instruct the jury on the defense of duress. Stannard was found guilty and sentenced to fifteen years on the trafficking charge and five years concurrent on the fraud charge.

Here, there was evidence that a direct threat of serious bodily harm was made, the defendant believed the threat, and the threat of harm was capable of being carried out immediately.

Brian Stannard appealed his conviction and sentence for trafficking in oxycodone and obtaining prescription by fraud. Mr. Stannard’s conviction was reversed and he was granted a new trial.

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