WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ordered Florida courts on Tuesday to reconsider the sentence of a burglar who was sentenced to life because he had a pocketknife in his trousers when he broke into a closed steakhouse.
Had Clyde Bunkley (search) left the knife at home, he would have received no more than five years and would have gotten out of jail more than a decade ago.
The high court said in an unsigned opinion that Bunkley may deserve a lighter sentence.
Bunkley was convicted in 1987 of armed burglary for the break-in at a Western Sizzlin' Restaurant (search).
Although Florida law has long excluded pocketknives from the definition of weapons, the state Supreme Court didn't interpret the law until 1997, too late for Bunkley.
The state court later ruled that Bunkley should not benefit retroactively from the decision that common pocket knives are not deadly weapons. Justices ordered the state court to reconsider that decision.
Florida prosecutors argued in lower courts that it would be difficult to sift through old cases involving pocketknife crimes to determine which sentences would have to be changed.
Bunkley filed his own appeal, part of it handwritten in neat print, urging the court to intervene to protect his constitutional rights.
Bunkley was a repeat offender when he was caught at the restaurant, which was closed and vacant at the time. He did not use the knife in the crime, but admits having it in his pocket.
The state Supreme Court upheld the state law that defined weapons as "any dark, metallic knuckles, slingshot, billie, tear gas gun, chemical weapons or device or other deadly weapon except ... a common pocketknife."
The case is Bunkley v. Florida, 02-8636.
Also Tuesday, the Supreme Court said it will decide next year whether the U.S. Postal Service (search) can be sued for antitrust violations over the way it handled contracts for mail sacks. Flamingo Industries Ltd. claims the Postal Service is trying to create a monopoly in the mail sack business, driving U.S. companies out of business by transferring work to foreign manufacturers.
An appeals court ruled that the Postal Service is a "person" and can be sued under federal antitrust laws.
Solicitor General Theodore Olson (search) said that the appeals court decision would create costly problems for the post office, which has 770,000 workers who deliver 200 billion pieces of mail a year, or 40 percent of the word's mail.
Flamingo's attorney, Harold Krent, said Congress intended for the Postal Service to be run like a business.
"Preventing the Postal Service from anticompetitive behavior would further, not hinder, Congress' intent that the Postal Service compete on an equal footing with entities such as Federal Express (search) and UPS (search)," Kent told justices in a filing.
The case is U.S. Postal Service v. Flamingo Industries, Ltd., 02-1290.