Hold on. Don’t get too excited. Drugs aren’t suddenly legal in Florida.
A federal judge in Orlando has declared Floridaâ€™s strict-liability controlled substances act unconstitutional on the ground that the law could convict an innocent person of drug distribution who unknowingly possessed, transported or delivered a controlled substance. The lawsâ€™ fatal flaw is the lack of a criminal intent requirement, which the legislature purposely removed from the statutes in 2002.
U.S. District Judge Mary S. Scriven found that Florida stands alone among the states in its express elimination of mens rea â€“ the common-law â€œguilty mindâ€ requirement â€“ as an element of a drug offense.
This is important because it serves to put a little bit of a brake on out-of-control legislatures and prosecutors who are so eager to jail drug offenders that they ignore basic common-law protections.
The petitioner, Mackle Vincent Shelton, was convicted of delivery of a controlled substance and traffic charges. The jury was instructed that â€œto prove the crime of delivery of cocaine, the state must prove the following two elements beyond a reasonable doubt: that Mackle Vincent Shelton delivered a certain substance; and, that the substance was cocaine.â€ The state did not have to prove that he knew he was carrying or distributing cocaine or any controlled substance at all.
In granting Mr. Sheltonâ€™s petition for habeas corpus, the court found that Floridaâ€™s drug distribution law violates due process because it â€œregulates inherently innocent conduct.â€ Indeed, with no intent requirement, a Federal Express delivery person who unknowingly delivers a parcel containing a controlled substance, would be presumed a felon under Floridaâ€™s drug law.
This is a good decision.