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What Were Florida's Legislators, Prosecutors and Judges Thinking?

Submitted by David Borden on

Everglades Correctional Institution
A federal judge in Orlando, Florida, did something good and important this week. Judge Mary Scriven tossed out Florida's drug law as unconstitutional. See our Chronicle report here.

The issue is one that is shocking to see even come up in this day and age: Florida's drug law was amended in 2002 to eliminate mens rea, the legal requirement that a defendant intended to commit the crime. For example, if you didn't know there were in drugs in a package -- e.g. someone else put them there and didn't tell you -- you can still be convicted for drug trafficking:

In his instructions to the jury in Shelton's case, the trial judge told jurors that "to prove the crime of delivery of cocaine, the state must prove the following two elements beyond a reasonable doubt: that Mackle Vincent Shelton delivered a certain substance; and, that the substance was cocaine." The state did not have to prove that he knew he was carrying or distributing cocaine or any controlled substance at all.

I agree with Shelton's attorney, James Felman, who called the law "legally, beyond the pale." [St. Petersburg Times] No other state in the nation has tried this. So the question is, what the hell were Florida's legislators, prosecutors and judges thinking -- legislators for passing this, prosecutors for making use of it, judges for cooperating with it? And why did it take nine years to stop it? I think all these groups of people, or the ones involved, have some very, very serious explaining to do -- I struggle to think of a more improper course the law or our justice system could take.

By the way, in case there are any Speakeasy readers who don't know about our newsletter, Drug War Chronicle, please check it out -- it's here or on our home page here or by RSS feed here. Phil Smith produces a prodigious quantity of news writing for it each week and on most days.

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