Supreme Court Upholds Florida’s Drug Possession Law

July 13, 2012

Florida’s drug possession statute can force those who say they didn’t know they were breaking the law to prove that or be presumed guilty, the state Supreme Court said Thursday in one of the most closely watched Florida drug cases decided in recent years.

By a 5-2 ruling, the court upheld a 2002 Florida law that says defendants busted with drugs are presumed to have known they knew what they had was illegal, and if they claim they didn’t, requires them to prove that to jurors.

In not requiring “knowledge” of the illegality of whatever they were carrying, the law puts Florida at odds with at least 48 other states that require prosecutors to convince a jury that defendants knew they were carrying illegal drugs.

Under the Florida law upheld on Thursday, the state still must prove that defendants knew they were in possession of something – prosecutors just don’t have to prove the defendant knew that it was an illegal substance. For example, if drugs are found in the trunk of a car, the state would have to prove the defendant knew they were there. But if the defendant says he thought he was buying a bag of sugar, not drugs, he’d have to prove that to jurors, who, under the law, are allowed to presume he was carrying drugs.

The high court was asked to weigh in on the case after a state circuit judge in Manatee County last year threw out 46 drug possession cases, saying they conflicted with a recent federal court opinion that found the law unconstitutional. Lower federal court decisions, however, aren’t binding on state courts. The Manatee judge’s decision, which potentially invites the reversal of thousands of other drug possession cases, was appealed directly to the state Supreme Court.

Justice Charles Canady said lawmakers made their intent clear in passing the law.

“The conduct the Legislature seeks to curtail is the sale, manufacture, delivery, or possession of a controlled substance, regardless of the defendant‘s subjective intent,” Canady wrote in the majority opinion.

Critics of the law said it violates basic federal constitutional protections and the premise that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. They also argued the law wrongly assumes that wrongful imprisonment is unlikely.

“I cannot overstate my opposition to the majority‘s opinion,” said Justice James Perry in a dissent. “In my view, it shatters bedrock constitutional principles and builds on a foundation of flawed ?common sense.”

The state court ruling, however, conflicts with a federal court opinion rendered in July that found the state law problematic.

In that ruling throwing out another conviction, U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven found the state’s possession law unconstitutional, saying defendants must know a controlled substance is illicit to be convicted of a drug offense.

“Other states have rejected such a draconian and unreasonable construction of the law that would criminalize the ‘unknowing’ possession of a controlled substance,” Scriven wrote.

Scriven’s ruling in Mackle V. Shelton v. Secretary of Corrections brought a deluge of litigation, leading to the dismissal of charges in circuits across the state.

“(Scriven’s ruling) has produced a category-five hurricane in Florida criminal practice,” Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsh wrote in an opinion dismissing charges against 39 cases in Miami.

But a final word on which ruling stands would have to be made by the U.S. Supreme Court because federal District Court decisions are not binding on the state Supreme Court.

Derek Byrd, president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he expects at least one of the cases to be appealed.

“It’s disappointing,” Byrd said of the Florida court ruling.”The bedrock of criminal law has always been that there must be criminal intent.”

By The News Service of Florida

Pictured top: Marijuana and rolling papers seized during a drug search in Century. photo, click to enlarge.


8 Responses to “Supreme Court Upholds Florida’s Drug Possession Law”

  1. Nicole on July 14th, 2012 4:53 pm

    Weather your guilty or innocent you shouldn’t be presumed guilty untill proven innocent! Really? Last time I checked it’s the other way around per your constitutional rights!!!

  2. micah on July 14th, 2012 11:11 am

    Carrie, there is no single tax that could fix the deficit. That idea is an old fall-back argument for legalization advocates that holds no truth and makes us look bad. Not saying they shouldn’t try it, though! :-)

  3. Carrie on July 14th, 2012 8:46 am

    Why are we still putting citizens addicted to drugs (addiction being a treatable disease) in jail to become hardened criminals? This is ridiculous. Legalize Marijuana, the plant, and tax it to erradicate the deficit Obama has left our grandchildren with. Very simple solution.

  4. Germ on July 13th, 2012 1:06 pm

    Can we end this insulting War on Drugs already? Seriously people, alcohol and tobacco do far more damage than marijuana in any form, and they are perfectly legal. Granted, not all drugs should be made readily available, but the criminal prosecution and imprisonment for possession turns what would be a normal every day citizen into a hardened criminal by the time they get out of jail… AT THE TAX PAYERS EXPENSE!! At what point does that logic make ANY sense?!?! We need reform, and we need it ASAP!!

  5. Old Goldie on July 13th, 2012 8:20 am


  6. David Huie Green on July 13th, 2012 7:42 am

    What if this gets out of hand?
    “Officer, I didn’t know the speed limit is 55 on 97. I thought it was 97 on 55.”
    “Nobody told me it was illegal to beat up homeless folks.”
    “I didn’t know I couldn’t dump gasoline in the drinking water.”

    This might even make it harder on the poor kid in the car who didn’t know who was driving the car to her house and didn’t know anything about the drugs and weapons in the car.

    David for presumption of brains,
    evidence to the contrary notwithstanding

  7. bigk on July 13th, 2012 6:46 am

    Hey these aint my pants I borrowed them. I didnt know there was a bag of crack in the pocket.
    Really people that statement is made all the time. People carrying drugs know that they are illegal unless they live under a rock. GO FLORIDA

  8. deBugger on July 13th, 2012 2:37 am

    Presumption of Guilt.

    “… jurors, who, under the law, are allowed to presume he was carrying drugs.”

    “…the law puts Florida at odds with at least 48 other states that require prosecutors to convince a jury that defendants knew they were carrying illegal drugs…a state circuit judge in Manatee County last year threw out 46 drug possession cases, saying they conflicted with a recent federal court opinion that found the law unconstitutional.”

    What is it about legislators & judges & LEOs in my Native Florida that rankles my behind?

    Police State Mentality.

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