Florida's Drug Laws at Risk

August 22, 2011

A long road lies ahead for defendants charged with drug crimes, as well as, for prosecutors who are trying to keep their cases from unraveling. Recent decisions from the federal and state benches have put all drug cases under the proverbial microscope. A federal judge out of Orlando was the first to declare that Florida's drug laws are unconstitutional as they violate the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. While courts across the state are still undecided how to handle the matter, one state court judge has followed suit. Two other state court judges and one federal court judge have declined to throw out or dismiss cases in their courtrooms. As a matter of course, all Miami criminal defense attorneys should file motions to dismiss or motion to vacate previously entered pleas to all drug cases from simple possession to drug trafficking.

While it is unknown how many judges will toss the drug cases in their courtroom, motions should be filed on behalf of clients charged with drug offenses. The problem with the current state of the law can be traced back to 2002 when the Florida legislature repealed the knowledge requirement in dealing with drug cases. Florida is the only state that has done away with the knowledge requirement for narcotics offenses. In criminal cases, the prosecution has the obligation to prove that a defendant acted with criminal intent. Defense lawyers are currently arguing that the current law which fails to provide that knowledge is a key element in any offense is a violation of an individual's due process rights. As such, the facts of any particular drug case are irrelevant as the current conflict strikes at the heart of law as it currently stands on the books.

In the upcoming weeks and months, motions to dismiss open cases or motions to vacate previously closed cases will be granted and denied. Some judges will grant motions, while others will deny them which pretty much leaves defendants with the luck of the draw. Eventually the issue will be heard in the appellate courts as prosecutors and defendants file appeals depending on which side was victorious in their endeavor. At this point it is unclear which appellate court will render the final verdict. Appeals will be taken the Florida Supreme Court, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and even to the Supreme Court of the United States. It is important to remember that any current victories in drug cases could be overturned putting a defendant in the same position he or she was in prior to winning the dismissal.

Statistics kept by the Florida Department of Corrections show that 94,000 individuals are currently serving prison sentences for a variety of drug crimes. While recent rulings are not going to result in prisoners being released at this time, the recent rulings are definitely a concern for prosecutors across the state. As judges come forward and begin dismissing cases, state attorneys' offices across the state will file their appeals. It is not clear whether judges will hold their orders in abeyance while waiting for higher court to rule. Because this is a matter of great importance, the appellate courts will probably rule sooner than later. In the meantime, courts will be flooded with motions further clogging the courts' dockets. Ultimately, if the laws are struck down, a little chaos will ensue as attorneys rush to file their motions.

Rulings Muddle Florida Drug Law, The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2011.