In a move that stands to potentially flood the Florida courts with a multitude of appeals, U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven ruled the statewide Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act to be unconstitutional, eliminating its impact altogether.
The ruling will put Florida back in line with all other states in regards to mens rea or the requirement that a suspect have a “guilty mind” at the time of the offense. In 2002, Florida lawmakers eliminated this requirement from the law, making ours the only state to not require intent for a conviction.
By eliminating the mens rea requirement, lawmakers essentially allowed people to be charged and convicted of crimes they didn’t know they were committing. The St. Petersburg Times illustrates this, stating a postal worker delivering a package that contained drugs could be convicted of drug trafficking despite their inability to know what it was that they were transporting.
For the past 9 years people have been convicted and sometimes sent to prison for committing drug offenses they did not intend to commit. Now, with the law stricken, thousands of cases are expected to come before the courts again—this time as appeals.
Some are predicting a flood of appeals while others believe the rush won’t be so forceful. Former prosecutor Bob Heyman says the cases where an innocent person is ensnared and convicted without knowledge of the commission of a crime are very rare. “I don’t see a drastic shift in the way cases are investigated or prosecuted or defended.”
This ruling by Judge Scriven is a long time coming. By eliminating the mens rea requirement the Florida legislature essentially turned the burden of proof in drug cases on its head. Instead of requiring the prosecution to prove someone’s intent beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant had to prove their innocence, something that flies in the face of due process.
The state is expected to appeal Scriven’s ruling but some are hopeful the Legislature will amend and correct the law before that happens. “I think the Legislature must immediately fix the statute,” says one defense lawyer. “This is not a close call. No state has ever done this before. Legally, it’s beyond the pale.”
Because the entire law was ruled unconstitutional, it will be interesting to see how the inevitable appeals play out. In the meantime, courts will have to begin requiring mens rea once again in Florida drug cases.