Landmark Florida Ruling Could Benefit Those Charged With Drug Crimes

By N. Ryan LaBar | Criminal Defense Attorney
Published: 2012

American law has traditionally held with the belief that in order for someone to be convicted of a crime, the offense in question must have been committed with a "guilty mind." Yet, a decade ago, the Florida legislature passed an almost unprecedented law that codified their desire to criminalize drug possession regardless of a defendant's intent or knowledge.

Now, a Florida ruling challenging the validity of the state drug enforcement scheme is surging ahead of its federal counterparts. With help from a Florida drug charges defense lawyer, those Floridians who find themselves legally entangled in the War on Drugs could benefit substantially from the new case.

Federal Court Says Mens Rea Provision Constitutional Requirement of Drug Law

A controversial ruling came down from a federal courtroom in Orlando late in the summer of 2011. The case involved Mackle Shelton, a Florida man accused of a cocaine offense and ultimately sentenced to 18 years in prison.

When Shelton was convicted back in 2005, the jury was instructed that in order for him to be guilty under Florida law, it must only be shown that he delivered a substance, and the substance was cocaine; the jury was specifically told the state did not have to prove that Shelton knew he was distributing or in possession of a controlled substance.

The mental state required to commit a crime is known as mens rea. To be convicted, a defendant normally must commit an act with a guilty mens rea, in other words, with an intent to commit the crime in question.

Under the Florida statute that excludes mens rea as an element of drug crimes, judges have hypothesized that even bystanders who have unknowingly had drugs hidden amongst their possessions or postal workers delivering packages that are, unbeknownst to them, filled with illegal narcotics could be prosecuted. The lack of an intent element for Shelton's drug crime was an omission ruled to be unconstitutional in federal court. Yet, Mr. Shelton's ordeal is not over yet: the state is in the process of appealing the decision.

Florida Ruling Could Outpace Federal Shelton Case

As of late November, 2011, a case heard in Florida state court that was almost identical to Mr. Shelton's was fast tracked by the 2nd District Court of Appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. As a ruling on this state case is expected to materialize before the Shelton appeal takes form in federal court, it may have an earlier impact on anyone charged with a drug crime of possession with intent to distribute in Florida.

If the drug law is ultimately found unconstitutional at the highest level, it could mean the dismissal of pending charges against hundreds of defendants. If you have been charged with a drug crime in Florida, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to review your options.


Orlando Criminal Defense Attorney N. Ryan LaBar






N. Ryan LaBar
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