Florida's Drug Laws Ruled Unconstitutional; People Need to Know Their Drugs Are Illegal

The case of cocaine delivery man Mackle Shelton -- who received an 18-year sentence for practicing his trade in 2005 -- sparked a federal judge to rule part of Florida's drug laws unconstitutional yesterday.

Judge Mary S. Scriven of Federal District Court, in a 43-page order, threw out Shelton's cocaine-delivery charge -- although he's still liable for another seven charges he was found guilty of -- because Florida law eliminates the need to establish mens rea, or a "guilty mind."

In the order, Scriven declares the state Legislature's 2002 changes to Florida's Drug Abuse Prevention and Control law unconstitutional on the same grounds.

It is this section of the law that was deemed unconstitutional, citing that in Shelton's case, the jury was not instructed to determine whether he knowingly acted as a cocaine delivery man.

"To state the obvious, there is a long tradition throughout human existence of lawful delivery and transfer of containers that might contain substances under innumerable facts and circumstances...," Scriven writes. "Under Florida's statute, that conduct is rendered immediately criminal if it turns out that the substance is a controlled substance, without regard to the deliverer's knowledge or intent."

The judge cites several United States Supreme Court cases in her decision and notes that there has never been an appellate case to challenge this specific law.

She says that "tough luck" is no answer to the constitutionality of the law and that the "possession of cocaine is never legal" argument doesn't work, as there is an infinite amount of circumstances in which someone may legitimately not know they're in possession of drugs.

Scriven describes the Florida law as a "legislative scheme" and says, "Not surprisingly, Florida stands alone in its express elimination of mens rea as an element of a drug offense."

In short, Scriven says, "the Florida drug statute fails completely."

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Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley