Federal Judge Throws Out Florida’s Drug Law
Joe | Jul 30, 2011 | Comments 2
In 2002 the Florida legislature amended the state’s drug law to eliminate the need for prosecutors to prove criminal intent on the part of defendants. Judge Scriven ruled that this amendment violated the due process of suspects because prosecutors don’t have to prove that the suspects knew they possessed illegal drugs.
“Not surprisingly, Florida stands alone in its express elimination of mens rea as an element of a drug offense,” Scriven wrote in her order. “Other states have rejected such a draconian and unreasonable construction of the law that would criminalize the ‘unknowing’ possession of a controlled substance.”
The case originated in Osceola County, Florida when 33 year old Mackle Vincent Shelton was convicted on cocaine charges and sentenced to 18 years in prison, even though the jury didn’t have to consider intent when convicting him. The resulting appeals led to Judge Scriven’s bench.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), which filed an amicus curiae brief in the case, pointed out that without the criminal intent requirement, “a Federal Express delivery person who unknowingly delivers a parcel containing a controlled substance, would be presumed a felon under Florida’s drug law.”
Legal experts in Florida say this ruling could have the effect of throwing open hundreds of thousands of drug cases in the state, putting all drug convictions at risk.
The problem, of course, is that those convictions were obtained unconstitutionally, at least according to Judge Scriven.
Shelton’s attorney, Tampa lawyer James Felman, said, “It takes the presumption of innocence and throws it in the garbage can. I think the legislature must immediately fix the statute. This is not a close call. No state has ever done this before. Legally, it’s beyond the pale.”
It remains to be seen how all this shakes out, and we will bring you any new developments as they become available.