Imagine a mother running late to work, speeding past every car she can and blowing through each yellow light she comes across. Finally, she runs one too many lights, and is pulled over after one light turned solid red. When she reaches for her vehicle registration in the glove box, a suspicious bag flops onto the passenger’s seat. This bag contains a controlled substance and, up to this point, she had no idea the bag was in her car.
The bag was left by her daughter’s friend after her daughter borrowed her car to round up some classmates for a high school party. If that woman is stopped in Florida, she would face serious drug charges for possession despite her innocence and lack of knowledge.
Florida: Home to the Strictest Drug Laws in the United States
Florida is known throughout the country as having the toughest penalties for drug crimes. As of July 2012, the Florida Supreme Court set a dangerous precedent for defendants, whether for simple possession or trafficking. In State v. Adkins, the Court upheld that a controversial strict liability felony drug law is constitutional. Now, Florida is one of just two states in the country in which citizens can be prosecuted for illegal drug possession even if they never knew they had drugs on them.
Elimination of the Knowledge Requirement
In criminal law, intent and knowledge are required elements that the prosecution must prove in order to secure a conviction, and in most states it is still required to prove drug possession. Criminal intent is one of the three elements of mens rea, or the “state of mind” that the prosecution must show a defendant had at the time a crime was committed to prove guilt. This element was taken out of Florida law in 2002, when the Florida Legislature enacted §893.101, which provides that “knowledge of the illicit nature of a controlled substance is not an element of any offense under this chapter.”
The statute also holds that lack of knowledge is an “affirmative defense to the offenses of this chapter,” and that, “when a defendant asserts this affirmative defense, possession of a controlled substance shall give rise to a permissive presumption that the possessor knew of the illicit nature of the substance.”
What this means is that the suspect is presumed to have knowledge of the controlled substance in his or her possession simply because it was found in his or her possession. Even in serious cases of drug trafficking where mandatory minimum sentences are common there is no requirement to show intent. The law shifts the burden of proof from the State needing to prove a defendant’s guilt to the defendant needing to prove his innocence.
Justice James Perry claimed that he “could not overstate his opposition to the majority opinion” and showed concern that the Florida Legislature “stripping intent requirements for one of the most serious felony offenses will spark a trend toward the dilution of intent requirements all across the board.”
Intent is the top requirement for any criminal prosecution everywhere else in the United States. Washington State is the only other state in which intent is not necessary to prosecute drug charges. But in Washington, this is only possible when prosecuting for simple possession charges in which the controlled substance is in close proximity, such as in one’s pocket. The way the Florida law is written, even a mail carrier delivering a package of prescription drugs to a person who has no prescription for those drugs could, in theory, be prosecuted.
Fight Your Drug Charges in West Palm Beach
Defense attorneys throughout the state are understandably upset about the ruling. So are several federal and local judges and the dissenting Justices who understand how this law can reasonably force innocent people into the criminal justice system. The “guilty until proven innocent” approach does not align with our national values. If you have been arrested for drug charges, contact The Law Office of Gabriel & Gabriel at 561-622-5575.