July 12, 2012
Florida is one of only two states that permit a person to be convicted of a drug offense without requiring proof the defendant knew the substance was illegal. Today, by a 5-2 vote, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the facial constitutionality of that law in the case of State v. Adkins. The opinion is available online here. You may read that this case has to do with “mens rea.” Generally to be convicted of a crime a person has to know that what they are doing is wrong, In other words, they can’t be convicted unless they have the mens rea (guilty mind).
What does this ruling mean for FAMM members?
Prisoners convicted of violating Florida’s drug laws are not affected by this ruling. For now, no one convicted under Florida’s drug laws is entitled to any kind of early release or new trial because of this Supreme Court opinion. Every case is different, of course, and your loved one may be entitled to a new trial or early release based on some other issue, but the mens rea issue – at least for now – cannot be the basis for any motions for new trial. If you have any questions about how this ruling applies to a specific case, please consult your attorney.
What does this mean for Florida’s drug laws?
In essence, it means there will be no change in Florida’s drug laws at this time. However, the Court did leave open the possibility of a future challenge to the same statute. By ruling only on the statute’s “facial constitutionality,” the Court left open the possibility that the same statute might be later found unconstitutional “as applied.” In other words, as Justice Pariente put it in her concurrence: “[because] the Act could be unconstitutionally applied to a specific defendant by criminalizing innocent conduct while subjecting him or her to a substantial term of imprisonment, I would not foreclose an individual defendant from raising an as-applied challenge to the Act on due process grounds.” (Emphasis added.) We will keep our eyes for any such “as applied” challenges and let you know what we learn.
What is next?
Today’s opinion was issued by the Florida Supreme Court. However, a federal case based on the same issue – Secretary, Department of Corrections v. Shelton - is currently making its way through the federal court system. Oral argument was heard on May 10 of this year at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. Depending on how it is decided, a decision in that case could impact Florida’s drug laws. FAMM will keep you up to date with the latest news on that case as it unfolds.
The Florida Supreme Court has found that the Florida drug laws are not unconstitutional standing alone. The lack of mens rea requirements may open the door to successful constitutional challenges down the road by individuals claiming their rights were violated because the state did not prove they had a mens rea. I urge everyone to read Justice Perry’s dissenting opinion. That opinion outlines the dangers of our statute, which Justice Pariente noted is “clearly out of the mainstream.”
Just because the Florida drug laws are constitutional does NOT mean those laws are good public policy. It is up to us to double down and hold the legislature accountable to pass meaningful reforms. If you have any questions about the ruling, or Florida’s sentencing laws generally, please feel free to contact FAMM’s Florida Project Director Greg Newburn at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at (352) 682-2542. You can also follow the Florida Project on Twitter at @FloridaFAMM.