As criminal defense lawyers in the Jacksonville and North Florida area, two of the most common crimes we see are possession of illegal drugs and delivery of illegal drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin. Hundreds of people in the Jacksonville and North Florida areas are put in jail for those crimes on a weekly basis. However, it is possible that those drug convictions were unconstitutional because the Florida possession and delivery of drugs law violates a person’s right to due process under the Constitution.
In a recent, very well-written opinion by a judge in Miami-Dade County, the possession and delivery of illegal drugs statute was determined to be unconstitutional. This is the same criminal statute that has put thousands and thousands of people in jails and prisons in Florida over the years. So, what was the problem with such a well-established and frequently used criminal statute? According to the judge’s analysis, the statute, as written, does not distinguish between people who possess or delivery illegal drugs knowing the illegal nature of the substance and those who possess or deliver illegal drugs not knowing what they have is illegal.
Of course, the majority of people who possess or deliver illegal drugs know very well what they are doing is illegal. However, there are those people who possess or deliver illegal drugs who do not know the illegal nature of what they are possessing or delivering. The criminal statute does not distinguish between those two mental states- intending to do the act that is illegal in the first instance and not intending to do anything illegal in the second instance. For that reason, according to the judge, the statute is unconstitutional because it covers conduct where there is no intention to break the law.
The State argued that if a person did not know the substance he/she had or delivered was an illegal drug, the defendant could assert that as a defense. However, according to the judge, this placed an impermissible burden on the defendant who is always innocent until the state proves him/her guilty in a criminal case. It is the state’s burden to prove their case, and one of the elements that must be proven is the fact that the defendant knew what he/she had was an illegal drug.
For instance, consider a situation if Person A has a closed gym bag and asks his friend to take it to the gym and put it in his locker. Person A knows there is a bag of cocaine inside and is plannign on having his buyer pick it up at the gym. The friend has no diea what is in the gym bag bvut gets arrested before he makes the delivery. Under the statute, the friend is guilty of delivering cocaine without the state having to prove that the friend knew he was illegally delivering cocaine.
What are the implications of this recent ruling that the drug statute is unconstitutional? There are thousands of people with pending drug cases who have been arrested and/or charged by this statute that has now been deemed unconstitutional by a Circuit Court judge. Will those cases be allowed to go forward? There are thousands of people in jail or prison who were sentenced after having been convicted of this questionable drug statute. Should they be released?
The judge who issued this ruling is a circuit court judge in Miami-Dade County. Other judges in circuit courts in other parts of Florida may disagree and find the drug statute to be perfectly legal. A ruling in Miami may have no effect on a similar case in Jacksonville where the issue is raised. What will likely happen is the Florida Supreme Court will have to decide the validity and constitutionality of this drug statute. Once the Florida Supreme Court decides this issue, it would be binding on all defendants charged with possession of illegal drugs or delivery of illegal drugs in Florida.