Travis Smith, the 38-year-old Palm Coast resident convicted of battery by a jury last week for attacking a Lyft driver during a ride from Flagler Beach to Palm Coast in 2020, has filed for a new trial. Smith is challenging the jury’s findings. He has also filed a motion to get out of jail, challenging the judge’s decision to revoke his $5,000 bond immediately after the May 25 verdict.
“The guilty verdict for Battery is contrary to the weight of the evidence at trial,” the two-page motion filed by Smith’s attorney, Philip Bonamo, on Tuesday states. (Smith in video recorded inside the Lyft is seen grabbing and twisting the driver’s head for several seconds, and later is seen pummeling him in the median of Belle Terre Parkway as the driver was on the ground, taking the blows and not returning them. The victim, an American citizen of Turkish extraction, claimed Smith called him a terrorist, though that element was disallowed at trial.)
“The evidence presented at trial by [Smith] supported that [Smith] was acting in self-defense of himself and the other passengers in the vehicle when he touched [sic.] the Lyft driver. The competent, substantial evidence showed that [Smith] was justified in his use of non-deadly force.”
The prosecution has not filed a response. It may do so either in writing or before Circuit Judge Terence Perkins. When it does, it is almost certain to point out what the jury saw during trial: that Smith and his friend, the father of a young child who was also along for the ride, fabricated a story and told lie after lie with stunning disregard for the video evidence–about the driver blowing through red lights and stop signs, about repeatedly telling the driver to pull over, about being told by the driver to “shut up” and being insulted by him. None of it was true, though the driver had testified that before the ride began, he’d had a phone call with Smith, who called him names and insulted his wife.
The motion for a new trial appears to be furthering the fictions. Perkins, a textually analytical judge who tends to keep copious nots of his proceedings, and who has never shown a particular predilection for fiction, is not likely to grant the motion: his sending Smith to jail was in itself a message that while the verdict was attenuated, Perkins’s analysis was not. And the court generally is not keen on asking victims to go through the same grueling court process twice: the victim in this case was on the stand for several hours, keeping his composure most of the time, but not all the time.
The motion for a new trial is relatively unusual regardless, given the circumstances.
Smith had faced three criminal counts going into the three-day trial: a misdemeanor count of contributing to the dependency of a minor (any act contributing to a child becoming delinquent or dependent or in need of services). Circuit Judge Terence Perkins acquitted him on it before it went to the jury as the defense made a convincing case that the prosecution had not proven its case on that one. He also faced a felony burglary count, which the jury acquitted him of; and the misdemeanor battery count.
Most defendants generally take that kind of result as a victory, particularly in the face of the evidence the prosecution did have: a complete video of the Lyft ride showing Smith attacking the driver, unprovoked, but for what Smith and the friend he was riding him claimed was the driver’s erratic driving–also disproven by video footage. The acquittal on the felony charge spared Smith of a designation as a felon and of the potential for several years in prison.
Before trial Assistant State Attorney Tara Libby had offered Smith a deal: 180 days in jail, two years of house arrest (with permission to leave the house for work and emergencies), four years on probation, and a withholding of adjudication, meaning that Smith would not be branded a felon, assuming he completed his terms cleanly. Smith turned the deal down.
The misdemeanor conviction carries a maximum penalty of 365 days at the local jail, a sentence he’s already serving even though he’s not to be sentenced until July 22. Smith isn’t foreign to jail sentences: he served three months of a six-month sentence in Maryland on a drunk driving conviction in 2007. However many days he will serve until then will be credited to whatever sentence Perkins will impose.
Many aspects of the trial were unusual to the point of reality-altering surrealism: the brazenness of the attack as Smith rips through a protective shield separating the back seats from the front seats, during the early days of the covid pandemic; the oddity of the burglary charge, which appeared as if the prosecution had been hunting for a charge, any charge, more serious than battery, to somehow better match the brazenness of the offense with a felony count; the mind-boggling serial lies Smith told on the stand even after watching the video several times, as did his friend, who testified from Minnesota on Zoom (and his friend’s son, now 9, who had clearly been coached to say what he said); the split verdict, which recognized the violence of the act but didn’t buy the prosecution’s argument that by breaking the divider between back seats and driver’s seat, Smith was committing an act of burglary; and finally Perkins’s decision to send Smith immediately to jail after his conviction, even though it was on a misdemeanor.
By way of comparison, C.J. Nelson, a Palm Coast resident who’d gone to trial in 2018 on a felony child abuse count and a battery count after assaulting a 16-year-old girl at Epic Theater a year and a half earlier, was acquitted of the felony charge. The jury returned with two misdemeanor battery counts. That trial was high-profile, like Smith’s. That trial involved a self-defense claim, like Smith’s. (Nelson had lost a stand-your-ground hearing.) The attack was recorded on video, if on a grainier, far less conclusive one. But the judge at the time (Dennis Craig) did not remand Nelson to jail. He was eventually sentenced to one month in jail (he faced up to two years on the two counts) and two years on probation.
Smith’s lawyer also filed an “urgent” motion to get him out of jail, arguing that Smith has been a Flagler County resident “for quite some time” (he moved to Palm Coast in 2017), is “well established” in the area and “has no prior criminal record”–an error, given his DUI record in Maryland. The motion does not specify what Smith does by way of a profession, and nothing in three days of trial intimated anything to that effect. The court has not scheduled a hearing on either motion.
Smith, according to his jail booking on the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office’s jail website, is classified as a felon, even though he was convicted of a misdemeanor only. Repeated inquiries to the Sheriff’s Office about his classification at first went unanswered–one of the public information officers resigned in the interim–then yielded only ambiguous responses: ” He is being held in the appropriate jail pod based on his conviction,” a spokesperson wrote in an email today.
Asked to confirm whether he was, in fact, in a misdemeanor wing of the jail, as he ought to be, as opposed to a felony wing, the spokesperson again replied ambiguously: “Inmates are housed consistent with their custody level, the Florida Model Jail Standards, and the Florida Corrections Accreditation Commission. Beyond this we do not comment on the internal security practices of the Agency.” In fact, an inmate’s classification at a local jail is not exempt from public record disclosure. Smith’s classification has ben requested, but has not yet been answered. Bonamo did not respond to an email about his client’s classification status at the jail.