Florida's drug possession statute can force those who say they didn't know they were breaking the law to prove that or be presumed guilty, the state Supreme Court said Thursday. It was one of the most closely watched Florida drug cases decided in recent years.
By a 5-2 ruling, the court upheld a 2002 Florida law that says defendants busted with drugs are presumed to have known what they had was illegal. If they claim they didn't, the law requires them to prove that to jurors.
In not requiring "knowledge" of the illegality of whatever they were carrying, the law puts Florida at odds with at least 48 other states that require prosecutors to convince a jury that defendants knew they were carrying illegal drugs.
Under the Florida law, the state still must prove that defendants knew they were in possession of something — prosecutors just don't have to prove the defendant knew that it was an illegal substance.
For example, if drugs are found in the trunk of a car, the state would have to prove the defendant knew they were there. But if the defendant says he thought he was buying a bag of sugar, not drugs, he'd have to prove that to jurors.
The high court was asked to weigh in on the case after a state circuit judge in Manatee County last year threw out 46 drug possession cases, saying they conflicted with a recent federal court opinion that found the law unconstitutional. Lower federal court decisions, however, aren't binding on state courts.
The Manatee judge's decision, which potentially invites the reversal of thousands of other drug possession cases, was appealed directly to the state Supreme Court.
Justice Charles Canady said lawmakers made their intent clear in passing the law.
"The conduct the Legislature seeks to curtail is the sale, manufacture, delivery, or possession of a controlled substance, regardless of the defendant's subjective intent," Canady wrote in the majority opinion.
Critics of the law said it violates basic federal constitutional protections and the premise that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. They also argued the law wrongly assumes that wrongful imprisonment is unlikely.
"I cannot overstate my opposition to the majority's opinion," Justice James Perry said in a dissent. "In my view, it shatters bedrock constitutional principles and builds on a foundation of flawed common sense."
The state court ruling, however, conflicts with a federal court opinion rendered in July that found the state law problematic.
In that ruling throwing out another conviction, U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven found the state's possession law unconstitutional, saying defendants must know a controlled substance is illicit to be convicted of a drug offense.
"Other states have rejected such a draconian and unreasonable construction of the law that would criminalize the 'unknowing' possession of a controlled substance," Scriven wrote.
Scriven's ruling in Mackle v. Shelton v. Secretary of Corrections brought a deluge of litigation, leading to the dismissal of charges in circuits across the state.
"(Scriven's ruling) has produced a category-five hurricane in Florida criminal practice," Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsh wrote in an opinion dismissing charges in 39 cases in Miami.
A final word on which ruling stands would have to be made by the U.S. Supreme Court because federal District Court decisions are not binding on the state Supreme Court. Derek Byrd, president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he expects at least one of the cases to be appealed.
"It's disappointing," Byrd said of the Florida court ruling."The bedrock of criminal law has always been that there must be criminal intent."