When Is A 'Missile' Not A Missile? In Florida Criminal Law
A Florida criminal statute that evokes images of rocket propelled grenades is more likely to be applied in the case of a drive-by fruiting.
A Polk County woman was in the news this week for allegedly shooting a "deadly missile" at a car with three children in it, a second-degree felony.
Crystal Metheney, of Lake Wales, was arrested May 5 under Florida criminal statute 790.19 — "Shooting into or throwing deadly missiles into dwellings, public or private buildings, occupied or not occupied; vessels, aircraft, buses, railroad cars, streetcars, or other vehicles."
Along with the conspicuous drug reference in her name, some media outlets have reported on the seriousness of Metheney's crime.
A Google News search for Crystal Metheney brings up several headlines focused on the charge of firing a missile. One blogger wrote, "How did someone get access to a missile and why would she waste it on a car instead of selling it to the Russians?"
According to an affidavit from the Polk County Sheriff's Office, the missile Metheney is accused of firing is a 4.5 millimeter BB.
The 2009 Kia driven by the victim, 17-year-old Samantha Gunton had "a small indent with a missing paint chip...on the right rear door," according to the affidavit. "This damage is consistent with a BB striking the vehicle." Gunton was picking up her 10-year-old sister, who was staying with her father and his girlfriend, Metheney.
Metheney told police she had been shooting a BB gun at bottles across the roadway at the time of the incident.
"People and police especially need to read the statute in context," said Florida Coastal School of Law Professor Rod Sullivan.
The law levels the felony charge on any person who, "...throws any missile or hurls or projects a stone or other hard substance which would produce death or great bodily harm..."
"The key words are, 'would produce death or bodily harm.' It doesn't say 'could,'" Sullivan said. "This is not like your mom saying, 'Hey you could put an eye out.'"
Sullivan said that statute has previously been used to prosecute people for throwing a variety of objects — bicycles, frog spears, and even Florida's state fruit.
"In one of those cases a court said that an orange was not capable of producing death or great bodily harm, but a grapefruit was, according to a different court," he said, noting a lack of consistency in the application of the law.
"There's a long distance between being able to charge somebody with throwing a missile into an occupied vehicle and being able to convict somebody of that charge," he said.
"I think it's very difficult to prove that somebody willfully or wantonly discharged a BB gun in such a way that it would likely produce death or great bodily harm."
While Sullivan said Metheney likely doesn't have any recourse against news outlets that imply she shot a rocket at children since they cite the language of the law, he did note one action she could take to avoid getting this degree of media attention in the future — legally changing her name.
You can follow Patrick Donges on Twitter @patrickhdonges.