Can a Court Impose a Higher Sentence Than Allowed by 'Statutory Maximum' ?

In Leonard v. State, 731 So. 2d 2 (Fla. 2d DCA 1998), review granted, 719 So. 2d 287 (Fla. 1998) (Case No. 93,332), the defendant pleaded nolo contendere to a violation of probation and was sentenced to a term of thirty years' imprisonment when the statutory maximum for the second-degree felony was fifteen years. This type of sentencing error results in a sentence in excess of the statutory maximum, generally referred to as the prototype "illegal sentence." See Bain, 730 So. 2d at 305; Nelson, 719 So. 2d at 1232-33; Harriel v. State, 710 So. 2d 102, 104 (Fla. 4th DCA 1998). The court recognize that pursuant to section 921.001(5), Florida Statutes (1993), the sentencing guidelines may have, for some cases, provided statutory authority for the trial court to impose a higher sentence than allowed by the "statutory maximum." See Mays v. State, 717 So. 2d 515, 516 (Fla. 1998). Similarly, for those defendants who committed their crimes after October 1, 1998, section 921.0024(2), Florida Statutes (1999), provides that "if the lowest permissible sentence under the code exceeds the statutory maximum sentence as provided in s. 775.082, the sentence required by the code must be imposed." Prior to the enactment of these statutes, a court could not impose a guidelines sentence outside the statutory limits. See 921.001(5), Fla. Stat. (1991). As the First District reasoned, "The extraordinary provision made for remedying illegal sentences evidences the utmost importance of correcting such errors, even at the expense of legal principles that might preclude relief from trial court errors of less consequence." Sanders v. State, 698 So. 2d 377, 378 (Fla. 1st DCA 1997); see Nelson, 719 So. 2d at 1232. Thus, even where the defendant has pleaded guilty, the trial court may not impose a sentence exceeding the statutory maximum. See King v. State, 681 So. 2d 1136, 1140 (Fla. 1996); Williams v. State, 500 So. 2d 501, 503 (Fla. 1986).