Sunday, July 31, 2011

Federal Judge Rules Florida Drug Law

A federal judge in Orlando on Wednesday declared the state’s controlled-substances laws unconstitutional. A 2002 Florida law eliminated the requirement of a “guilty mind,” or “mens rea,” as part of a drug offense. Briefs attacking the Florida law, in which a defendant need not know that a substance is illegal to be convicted of possessing or selling it, had been filed by groups including the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the American Civil Liberties Union and dozens of law professors. Judge Mary S. Scriven of Federal District Court threw out the drug delivery charges against Mackle Vincent Shelton, and ordered a new sentencing hearing on other charges. Florida’s unique law expressly eliminating mens rea for drug offenses, the judge wrote, is “atavistic and repugnant to the common law.

Obviously, we are immediately drafting motions and pursuing this line on behalf of our own clients' (cases) that are pending, but we can't do much retroactively since those cases are closed," said Bob Wesley, public defender for Orange and Osceola counties. "I think it will be a robust line of litigation for all of us who appear in Florida criminal courts."
Tampa attorney James Felman, who won the landmark case, says the Florida legislature went too far.
"What the legislature attempted to do was essentially presume guilt and then let you come in and prove your innocence if you wish to avoid being imprisoned," Felman told
When the law was passed in 2002, Florida became the only state not to require that a suspect have knowledge that a controlled substance is illegal to be convicted. The law shifted the burden from prosecutors having to prove that a suspect knew to the defendant having to assert ignorance about the illegality of the controlled substance.
Attorney General Pam Bondi's office says they are currently reviewing the case. Many thing the state will appeal the decision.

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