State’s drug law constitutional, Florida Supreme Court rules


The 2002 law does not require prosecutors to prove that the accused knew of the ‘illicit nature’ of the narcotics in possession.

Florida’s Supreme Court has ruled that the state’s drug law is constitutional, ending a flurry of legal fights that saw scores of felony cases thrown out by lower courts.

In a 5-2 decision, justices ruled Thursday that prosecutors do not need to prove that someone charged with drug possession knew that about the “illicit nature” of the narcotics they carried.

The decision was closely watched in legal circles because thousands of drug convictions could have been thrown out had the high court struck down the law. But in upholding the statute, justices pointed out that the Legislature has broad leeway to craft laws, and there is no protected right to carry contraband.

“Nor is there a protected right to be ignorant of the nature of the property in one’s possession,” Justice Charles Canady wrote in the majority opinion, adding that its “highly unusual” for innocent people to be unknowingly carrying illegal drugs.

The law was changed in 2002, when legislators removed the burden from authorities to prove that a defendant had “knowledge” of the illicit nature of the drugs — although the accused could raise that defense at trial.

The recent challenge to the law had its roots in the July 2011 ruling of a Tampa federal judge, Mary Scriven, who said the law was unconstitutional and “draconian.” That sparked thousands of appeals statewide.

In Miami-Dade, Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch was the only one of some 60 judges to toss cases after Scriven’s ruling. He threw out 39 felony cases, which have since been reinstated.

The Third District Court of Appeal last month struck down Hirsch’s ruling, saying his “analysis and reasoning was flawed” because he ignored earlier decisions by state appeals courts.

A state circuit court judge in Manatee County also threw out 46 criminal cases, one of which went to the Florida Supreme Court and ended in Thursday’s ruling. Those cases also have been reinstated.

While five justices upheld the law, one of those, Barbara Pariente, nevertheless voiced concerns about the law.

She pointed out that it can “subject a defendant to staggering penalties ranging from punishment of up to 15 years imprisonment to life in prison for recidivists.” But the law ultimately does not violate the Constitution, she said in a narrow concurring opinion.

In dissent, Justice James Perry said he would have ruled the law unconstitutional, pointing out examples of people who can get unfairly targeted, such as the driver of a rental car used by an earlier person who dropped a bag of marijuana inside, or a traveler at an airport who mistakenly picks up luggage containing someone else’s illegal painkillers.

There are “genuinely innocent citizens who will be snared in the overly broad net” of the law, Perry wrote.

Jude M. Faccidomo, the president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Miami branch, agreed.

“It is a frightening time when the Legislature enacts, and the Florida Supreme Court upholds, a law that can potentially subject the citizens of Florida to arrest and prosecution for innocent conduct,” he said.

Read more Political Currents stories from the Miami Herald

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category