Courts

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.

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