Florida Drug Law Declared Unconstitutional

           In the case Mackle Vincent Shelton versus the Secretary of the Florida Department of CorrectionsUnited States District Judge Mary Scriven ruled that one of Florida's drug laws is unconstitutional because:

 

          1.  It does not require prosecutors to prove that someone accused of violating that law knew that the controlled substance he had in his possession was illegal; and

 

          2.  It is a strict-liability crime which does not meet the constitutional requirements necessary for such a crime.

 

          Regarding point number 1, it is generally the case in the United States that someone cannot be convicted of a crime unless he knows that what he was doing was illegal when he did it.  However, in 2002 the Florida Legislature passed a law which eliminated the requirement that someone charged with possessing an illegal controlled substance know that the substance in his possession is illegal.  Thus, if a college student in Florida were, for example, to put some cocaine into another student's book bag, that other student could be convicted of possessing cocaine even though he did not know that it was cocaine that had been put into his bag.

 

          Regarding point number 2, a strict-liability crime is one for which someone can be convicted even though she is ignorant of the fact that what she is doing is illegal when she is doing it.  But in order for a strict-liability crime to be constitutional, it must meet each of the following three requirements:

 

          a.  The penalty imposed must be slight;

 

          b.  A conviction does not result in substantial social stigma; and

 

          c.  Such a law must regulate inherently dangerous conduct.

 

          Regarding point "a," the penalty for violating Florida's drug law is not slight.  For example, someone convicted of delivering a controlled substance could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.

 

          Regarding point "b," Judge Scriven stated that "[t]he label of 'convicted felon' combined with a proclamation that the defendant is so vile that he must be separated from society for fifteen to thirty years, creates irreparable damage to the defendant's reputation and standing in the community.  This social stigma precludes, for example, the ability of a convicted felon to reside in any neighborhood of his choosing or to obtain certain employment."

 

          Regarding point "c," Judge Scriven observed that "there is a long tradition throughout human existence of lawful delivery and transfer of containers that might contain substances under innumerable facts and circumstances:  carrying luggage on and off of public transportation; carrying bags in and out of stores and buildings; carrying book bags and purses in schools and places of business and work; transporting boxes via commercial transportation . . . .  Under Florida's statute, that conduct is rendered immediately criminal if it turns out that the substance is a controlled substance, without regard to the deliverer's knowledge or intent."

 

          Based upon the ruling in the Shelton case, criminal-defense lawyers throughout Florida are already filing motions asking judges to declare Florida's drug laws unconstitutional.

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