Florida Supreme Court Upholds Controversial Drug Law

The Florida Supreme Court recently reaffirmed the constitutionality of a provision in the state's Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act that has been steeped in controversy. The state Supreme Court's decision allows the court system to continue to unfairly discriminate against defendants. The court's ruling will likely be challenged in federal court.

The Florida Supreme Court's Ruling

In a 5-2 decision, the state Supreme Court upheld a provision of Florida's drug laws that specifies an accused's knowledge that he or she possessed illicit drugs is not a factor in his or her guilt. In other words, the prosecution does not have to prove mens rea, or that the defendant had a guilty mind and intended to commit a criminal act, in order to convict.

Mens rea is one of two fundamental components of a criminal case. Usually, the prosecution must prove that the defendant committed an illegal act, like possessing drugs, and intended to commit a crime. By upholding the law, the state Supreme Court ruling confirms that in drug possession cases, the prosecution is merely required to prove an illegal act occurred, not that the defendant intended to act illegally.

In support of their decision, the justices explained that individuals do not have a protected right to carry illicit drugs and other controlled substances, so current law does not violate the rights of Floridians. If the court had struck down the law, thousands of drug convictions would have been reversed.

An Example of How the Law Works

In the dissent, judges outlined the unintended consequences of the Supreme Court's ruling. Imagine that someone rents a car for a fun weekend getaway and, unbeknownst to him or her, a previous renter left an illegal substance in the trunk of a car. If the current renter gets pulled over and the drugs are found during a search of the vehicle, the current renter will not be able to argue that he or she had no knowledge of the drugs and thus had no intent to commit a crime.

Implications of the Court's Ruling

The provision upheld by the state Supreme Court has been controversial since its passing in 2002. In 2011, a federal judge in Tampa ruled the law unconstitutional, causing a flurry of appeals. One judge vacated 39 felony convictions, while another overturned 46. These convictions will be reinstated due to the state Supreme Court's decision.

The law grants more power to the prosecution and shifts the burden of proof from prosecution to the criminal defense. Instead of requiring the prosecution to prove the defendant intended to commit a crime, it requires the accused to prove they are innocent. In excluding a defendant's knowledge of possession, it is possible for courts to convict individuals of crimes they did not commit and who were essentially in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Because the law turns justice on its head, the state Supreme Court's ruling will likely be appealed in federal court. If you have been convicted of a drug crime you did not commit due to current Florida law that effectively ignores mens rea, please contact an experienced criminal defense attorney.