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Bunkley v. Florida

May 27, 2003


on petition for writ of Certiorari To The Supreme Court Of Florida

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Per Curiam

538 U. S. ____ (2003)

Clyde Timothy Bunkley petitions for a writ of certiorari, arguing that the Florida Supreme Court contradicted the principles of this Court's decision in Fiore v. White, 531 U. S. 225 (2001) (per curiam), when it failed to determine whether the "common pocketknife" exception to Florida's definition of a " `[w]eapon' " encompassed Bunkley's pocketknife at the time that his conviction became final in 1989. Fla. Stat. §790.001(13) (2000). We agree, and therefore grant Bunkley's motion to proceed in forma pauperis and his petition for a writ of certiorari.


In the early morning hours of April 16, 1986, Bunkley burglarized a closed, unoccupied Western Sizzlin' Restaurant. Report and Recommendation in No. 91-113-CIV-T- 99(B) (MD Fla.), p. 1. The police arrested him after he left the restaurant. At the time of his arrest, the police discovered a "pocketknife, with a blade of 21/2 to 3 inches in length, ... folded and in his pocket." 768 So. 2d 510 (Fla. App. 2000) (per curiam). "There is no evidence indicating Bunkley ever used the pocketknife during the burglary, nor that he threatened anyone with the pocketknife at any time." Ibid.

Bunkley was charged with burglary in the first degree because he was armed with a "dangerous weapon" -- namely, the pocketknife. Fla. Stat. §810.02(2)(b) (2000). The punishment for burglary in the first degree is "imprisonment for a term of years not exceeding life imprisonment." §810.02(2). If the pocketknife had not been classified as a "dangerous weapon," Bunkley would have been charged with burglary in the third degree. See 833 So. 2d 739, 742 (Fla. 2002). Burglary in the third degree is punishable "by a term of imprisonment not exceeding 5 years." Fla. Stat. §775.082(3)(d) (2002); see also 833 So. 2d, at 742. Bunkley was convicted of burglary in the first degree. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1989, a Florida appellate court affirmed Bunkley's conviction and sentence. See 539 So. 2d 477.

Florida law defines a " `[w]eapon' " to "mea[n] any dirk, metallic knuckles, slungshot, billie, tear gas gun, chemical weapon or device, or other deadly weapon except a firearm or a common pocketknife." §790.001(13). Florida has excepted the " `common pocketknife' " from its weapons statute since 1901, and the relevant language has remained unchanged since that time. See 833 So. 2d, at 743.

In 1997, the Florida Supreme Court interpreted the meaning of the "common pocketknife" exception for the first time. In L. B. v. State, 700 So. 2d 370, 373 (per curiam), the court determined that a pocketknife with a blade of 33/4 inches "plainly falls within the statutory exception to the definition of `weapon' found in section 790.001(13)." The complete analysis of the Florida Supreme Court on this issue was as follows: "In 1951, the Attorney General of Florida opined that a pocketknife with a blade of four inches in length or less was a `common pocketknife.' The knife appellant carried, which had a 33/4-inch blade, clearly fell within this range." Ibid. (citation omitted). The Florida Supreme Court accordingly vacated the conviction in L. B. because the "knife in question was a `common pocketknife' under any intended definition of that term." Ibid. Justice Grimes, joined by Justice Wells, wrote an opinion agreeing with the majority's resolution of the case "[i]n view of the Attorney General's opinion and the absence of a more definitive description of a common pocketknife." Ibid.

After the Florida Supreme Court issued its decision in L. B., Bunkley filed a motion for post-conviction relief under Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.850 (1999). Bunkley alleged that under the L. B. decision, his pocketknife could not have been considered a "weapon" under §790.001(13). He therefore argued that his conviction for armed burglary was invalid and should be vacated because a "common pocketknife can not [sic] support a conviction involving possession of a weapon." App. to Pet. for Cert. C-2. The Circuit Court rejected Bunkley's motion, and the District Court of Appeal of Florida, Second District, affirmed. 768 So. 2d 510.

The Florida Supreme Court also rejected Bunkley's claim. It held that the L. B. decision did not apply retroactively. Under Florida law, only "jurisprudential upheavals" will be applied retroactively. 833 So. 2d, at 743 (internal quotation marks omitted). The court stated that a "jurisprudential upheaval is a major constitutional change of law." Id., at 745 (internal quotation marks omitted). By contrast, any "evolutionary refinements" in the law "are not applied retroactively." Id., at 744. The court then held that L. B. was an evolutionary refinement in the law, and therefore Bunkley was not entitled to relief. In a footnote, the Florida Supreme Court cited our decision in Fiore v. White, supra, and held without analysis that Fiore did not apply to this case. See 833 So. 2d, at 744, n. 12.*fn1

Justice Pariente, joined by Chief Justice Anstead, dissented. She stated that the Florida Supreme Court's decision in L. B. "should be applied to grant Bunkley collateral relief." 833 So. 2d, at 746. She criticized the majority opinion for relying solely on a retroactivity question. In her view, "application of the due process principles of Fiore renders a retroactivity analysis ... unnecessary." Id., at 747. She noted that even if L. B. was merely an evolutionary refinement of the law, "the majority offers no precedent laying out the stages of this evolution." 833 So. 2d, at 747. Because she thought the L. B. decision "correctly stated the law at the time Bunkley's conviction became final," she would have vacated Bunkley's conviction. 833 So. 2d, at 747.


Fiore v. White involved a Pennsylvania criminal statute that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court interpreted for the first time after the defendant Fiore's conviction became final. See 531 U. S., at 226. Under the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's interpretation of the criminal statute, Fiore could not have been guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. See id., at 227-228. We originally granted certiorari in Fiore to consider "when, or whether, the Federal Due Process Clause requires a State to apply a new interpretation of a state criminal statute retroactively to cases on collateral review." Id., at 226. "Because we were uncertain whether the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision ... represented a change in the law," we certified a question to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Id., at 228. This question asked whether the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's interpretation of the statute " `state[d] the correct interpretation of the law of Pennsylvania at the date Fiore's conviction became final.' " Ibid.

When the Pennsylvania Supreme Court replied that the ruling " `merely clarified the plain language of the statute,' " ibid., the question on which we originally granted certiorari disappeared. Pennsylvania's answer revealed the "simple, inevitable conclusion" that Fiore's conviction violated due process. Id., at 229. It has long been established by this Court that "the Due Process Clause ... forbids a State to convict a person of a crime without proving the elements of that crime beyond a reasonable doubt." Id., at 228-229. Because Pennsylvania law -- as interpreted by the later State Supreme Court decision -- made clear that Fiore's conduct did not ...

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