Last week, a federal judge in Orlando declared Florida’s Drug Abuse Prevention and Control law unconstitutional. The nine year old law was challenged on the grounds that it does not include an “intent” requirement, meaning that a defendant can be convicted of a drug offense, even if he or she unknowingly possesses, transports, or delivers a controlled substance. The case involved a Florida man, Mackle Shelton, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison on a cocaine offense.
The jury that convicted Shelton in 2005 was instructed that to prove the crime of delivery, two elements must be shown: that Mackle Shelton delivered a certain substance; and that the substance was cocaine. The jury was further instructed that the state did not have to prove that Shelton knew he was carrying or distributing a controlled substance.
According to U.S. District Judge Mary S. Scriven, the law’s fatal flaw is the lack of criminal intent requirement, which Florida’s legislature purposely removed from the books in 2002. The Judge noted that Florida is the only state in the nation to have expressly eliminated intent as an element of drug offenses. Scriven concluded that Florida’s drug law is unconstitutional “on its face.”
Judge Scriven cited the example of a student who hides cocaine in a friend’s backpack without telling him. The friend, having no idea it is there, would, under the subject drug law, be guilty of possession. Scriven struck down Shelton’s drug conviction.
Judge Scriven’s ruling could potentially throw thousands of criminal cases into jeopardy. The ruling’s implication is being praised as “monumental” and “courageous.” However, its impact on past convictions and people now charged under Florida’s drug law won’t be clear until an appellate court weighs into the decision. Florida is expected to appeal the ruling.