Federal judge declares Florida controlled substance law unconstitutional

Federal judge declares Florida controlled substance law unconstitutional

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[JURIST] A federal judge for the US District Court for the Middle District of Florida [official website] has declared [order, PDF] the state’s controlled-substances laws, which criminalize the “unknowing” possession of a controlled substance, unconstitutional. The decision, issued on Wednesday, stems from a petition for federal habeas corpus relief filed by Mackle Shelton, which included a claim that Florida’s Drug Abuse and Prevention statute [§ 893.13, text] is “facially unconstitutional because it entirely eliminates mens rea as an element of a drug offense and creates a strict liability offense under which [Shelton] was sentenced to eighteen years in prison.” The law was amended to its current form in 2002, making Florida the only state to have eliminated mens rea as an element of a drug offense. In her order, Judge Mary Scriven discussed a number of reasons why the law violated due process, writing:

Florida’s strict liability drug statute also runs afoul of due process limits when viewed from the perspective of the nature of the activity regulated. Where laws proscribe conduct that is neither inherently dangerous nor likely to be regulated, the Supreme Court has consistently either invalidated them or construed them to require proof of mens rea in order to avoid criminalizing “a broad range of apparently innocent conduct.” Under this reasoning, not even a small criminal penalty may constitutionally be imposed without proof of guilty knowledge where the conduct at issue includes a wide array of innocuous behavior or behavior not inherently likely to be regulated.”

The state is expected to appeal [NYT report] the decision as it may affect hundreds of convictions as well as other pending cases.

Florida continues to see challenges to its seemingly harsh drug-related rules. Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida (ACLUFL) [advocacy website] filed a lawsuit [JURIST report] challenging an executive order that mandates state government agencies provide pre-employment drug screening for all prospective employees and provide for random drug testing of all current agency employees regardless of classification. Governor Rick Scott [official website] issued Executive Order 11-58 [text, PDF] in March and directed the drug testing policy to go into effect by May 21, 2011. The complaint was filed in the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida [official website] on behalf of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 79 (AFSCME) [union website], a union representing 50,000 public workers affected by the order. In the complaint, the ACLUFL argues that the order violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable governmental searches and case law stating that drug-testing without suspicion is unreasonable except under certain circumstances, such as when employees are involved in “safety-sensitive” positions. The ACLUFL points out that the governor’s reasoning behind the order was not to promote safety, but to exert control over employees in order to maintain discipline and lessen absenteeism.