Drug Crime Laws Declared Unconstitutional by Federal Judge

August 15, 2011

The South Florida criminal justice system is replete with defendants charged with narcotics crimes from simple drug possession to drug trafficking. Criminal attorneys across the state including Miami criminal defense lawyers are seeking to have drug possession and drug trafficking cases thrown out of court. In Miami, three judges have ruled on the matter with two disagreeing with the federal ruling, while a third is following suit. Florida, a state where drug-related crimes constitute nearly half of all criminal convictions, is likely to experience massive turmoil in its court system after a district court's ruling in Shelton v. Department of Corrections. After Judge Mary Scriven called Florida's drug statute "draconian," and declared some of the state drug laws unconstitutional, state courts have been buried with motions from lawyers looking to dismiss their client's drug related charges.

Under Florida law, prosecutors are not required to prove that a defendant has any knowledge of drugs on their person. In fact, Florida is the only state to do away with this aspect of a drug conviction. The knowledge requirement was removed nine years ago by the Florida Legislature, claiming that it was simply too burdensome on the prosecution to prove something as nebulous as "knowledge" of drugs. Judge Scriven notes that this reasoning makes an individual that unwittingly has cocaine hidden in their backpack just as guilty as a bona-fide drug trafficker. In her Shelton ruling, Judge Scriven argued that due to the heavy sanctions in place for drug traffickers (anywhere from 3-25 years in prison plus large fines), doing away with the knowledge requirement was a violation of a defendant's right to due process. For example cocaine trafficking can carry a 15 year prison sentence while trafficking in oxycodone can carry a 25 year prison sentence.

Despite her ruling, this legal drama is far from resolved. Palm Beach lawyer Nellie King, president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers points out that the "State Attorneys' Offices are going to argue that her decision is not binding, and they're correct. But her decision is right, so our job is going to be getting state courts to agree that Florida has been going about things the wrong way." Indeed, state court judges are not legally bound by the opinion of a district court judge. Two Circuit Judges in Miami-Dade have refused to acknowledge the ruling; one Pensacola judge refused to dismiss any of the 17 drug cases brought before him. Miami-Dade Judge Jorge Cueto contends that Scriven's legal analysis is "flawed." Miami-Dade prosecutor Christine Zahralban notes that there is no knowledge requirement for age in cases of statutory rape, a crime that also carries heavy sentences - why should drug cases be any different?

Despite many Florida judges not agreeing with Scriven, Miami criminal defense attorneys have had some luck. Judge Milton Hirsch believes that Scriven's ruling is "absolutely binding" and allowed for the release of many defendants with drug charges. Defendants that have posted bail on cases in his division were all released on their own recognizance, meaning they no longer have any commitment to the bondmen who posted their bail. With over 1000 pending drug cases currently in South Florida courts, Floridians can probably expect to see a large number of charges dropped. However, even if Florida were to change its drug laws to conform to Scriven's ruling, it is unclear whether any convicts already serving prison terms would be affected.

Legal Drama Flares in Florida Drug-Law Case, Miami Herald.com, August 13, 2011.