Florida Drug Laws Ruled Unconstitutional

July 29, 2011

On July 28,2011, Federal Judge Mary Scriven of the Middle District of Florida ruled, in the case of Shelton v. Florida Department of Corrections, that all Florida state laws prohibiting the sale use and/or possession of illegal drugs per Florida Statute 893 are unconstitutional.

Crimes are classified in two basic categories: “general” intent and “specific” intent crimes. General intent crimes ( also referred to as “strict liability” crimes) presume, by their very nature, that the accused knew that their actions were illegal. Assault, Battery and DUI are good examples of general intent crimes. In contrast, “specific” intent crimes require proof that the accused knew that their actions were illegal ( also known as”mens rea” ) and intentionally committed the offense. Theft, sexual battery and premeditated murder are all specific intent crimes.

Prior to Judge Scriven’s ruling, all drug offenses in Florida were classified as general intent crimes. The state merely needed to prove that the possession, sale or delivery occurred. Under this scenario, a person could be successfully prosecuted for possession of drugs which had been placed in their clothing, backpack or motor vehicle without their knowledge. Hypothetically, a Federal Express delivery man could be prosecuted for (unknowingly) delivering illegal drugs which had been shipped by Fedex.

Prior to the decision in Shelton v Department of Corrections, Florida was the only state in the nation to expressly eliminate intent as an element of a drug offense. Quite frankly, it is about time that Florida has been brought in line with the rest of the nation’s drug laws. The State should have to affirmatively prove that the accused knew that he or she possessed, sold or delivered an illegal drug.

In the long term I do not see any earth shaking changes to the manner in which drug offenses are investigated, prosecuted or defended. In most cases, there should be ample evidence to prove knowledge and intent. What will hopefully change is that in cases where an accused is truly an unknowing victim of circumstances involving illegal drugs, the State will be less apt to file charges and force the accused to somehow “prove” themselves innocent.

However, for the short term, State Court judges will now be forced to grapple with the effect of the Federal Court’s ruling in Shelton. The State of Florida will almost certainly appeal, thereby postponing any immediate effects upon pending cases. However, if affirmed on appeal, you should expect a flood of defense motions to both dismiss pending cases and revisit cases which were previously disposed of under Chapter 893 as it now exists.

While it probably will not happen without a fight, the Florida legislature will eventually have to re-write Chapter 893 to include the element of intent in all drug offenses. The companion (and perhaps larger ) issue will be whether the legislature decides that the changes should apply retroactively to closed cases. I’m guessing no – a decision which will only spur additional legal attacks.

Regardless of how the future of drug law enforcement is ultimately resolved by the courts, should you or a loved one be faced with defending against a criminal drug charge in the Tampa Bay area, please do not hesitate to give me a call at the Heyman Law Firm at 727-822-3700 to schedule a no charge consultation at our main offices in St Petersburg.