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Florida Fifth DCA remands for new trial because of trial court's failure to conduct necessary analysis of allegedly race-based peremptory juror challenge

On June 1, 2018, in Travelers v. Gallo, No.5D16-3158, the Florida Fifth DCA reversed a judgment in favor of the plaintiff in a UIM case and remanded the case for a new trial because of the trial court’s failure to conduct the necessary analysis of an allegedly race-based peremptory juror challenge by defense counsel. The prospective juror had sought to strike the prospective African-American juror using a peremptory challenge, but plaintiff’s counsel objected, demanding a race-neutral reason for the strike in conformity with the three-step process established by the Florida Supreme Court in Melbourne v. State, 679 So. 2d 759, 764 (Fla. 1996). Defense counsel asserted a race-neutral reason, the prospective juror’s alleged inattentiveness, which was disputed by plaintiff’s counsel but corroborated, at least in part, by observations of the trial court (if the trial court had not corroborated the defendant’s observations, denial of the peremptory challenge would have been called for at that time). According to the Fifth DCA, under the Melbourne methodology the trial court was then required to determine whether the explanation was genuine rather than pretextual. The trial court failed to conduct this analysis, finding that defense counsel’s explanation was “legally insufficient” while simultaneously maintaining that the defense had not made a race-based strike.