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Florida Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument On Constitutionality Of Drug Law

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The Florida Supreme Court heard oral argument on Tuesday, December 6, 2011, regarding the constitutionality of Florida’s drug laws as raised in the criminal case of Luke Jarrod Adkins et al v. Florida.  An assistant public defendant and assistant attorney general were questioned by the Florida Supreme Court Justice’s about their legal positions.  The Florida Supreme Court has not issued a ruling on the issue raised in the appeal and does not have a specific timetable for issuing a written order in the case.

Assistant  Public Defender Matthew Bernstein  argued to the state Supreme Court that Florida's drug possession law is unconstitutional in the way it is written and applied because it would require someone who didn't know they were breaking the law to prove it.  That upends the general presumption of innocence defendants are supposed to enjoy, Bernstein contended.   Typically the state must prove someone is guilty, but in a drug possession case, where someone didn't know they were in possession of illegal drugs, it's the opposite.  Florida's current drug law, as amended in 2002  “forces defendants to put on evidence of their own innocence," because the law doesn't require proof that the defendant knew that the substance possessed was an illegal drug, Bernstein stated in his oral argument.  

That doesn't mean there's no hope for someone who happens to be arrested carrying some substance they may have been told was sugar, but was in fact methamphetamine, as an example.  But the accused person would have to prove to the jury that they didn't know it, while the jury would be instructed, in accordance with current Florida law, that it may presume the person knew they had illegal drugs on them.

The state, through Assistant Attorney General Diana Bock,  argued that the Legislature determined that drugs are such a pervasive societal problem, that it warranted such strict enforcement.  She told the justices that the truly innocent defendant still has the ability to argue to the jury that they didn't know what they possessed was illegal.  "This is … a war on drugs and in that war every citizen has been called to duty," Bock told the court.  If someone is given something to carry for another person, "it is their responsibility to find out," if the substance is illegal.  Prosecutors, she argued are merely carrying out the will of the Legislature in wanting to crack down on drug trafficking.  "Have they gone too far? Have they reached the line of due process? I would argue they have not," Bock said.

The justices had an interesting discussion with the attorneys about the possibilities - from whether a U.S. Postal Service employee carrying a shipment of pot or illegal prescription drugs might be found guilty of possession, to what would happen if Justice Peggy Quince tried to buy some spices and instead of oregano, somehow ended up with marijuana.   "I come into court and I say, 'I thought this was oregano,'" Quince posited. The jury will be told they're allowed to presume that Quince knew better. "Who do you think a jury is going to believe?"

View the actual oral argument before the Florida Supreme Court here.

The case is being closely watched by prosecutors and defense attorneys throughout the Florida court system because of its potential outcome - it could mean thousands of drug cases would be thrown out.

In addition to the dismissal of charges against 42 defendants in the case before the Supreme Court from Manatee County, there have been other cases in other Florida circuits.   These case decisions have been discussed in this blog here.  Florida's second district appeals court asked the Florida Supreme Court to decide the issue because it would "undoubtedly be raised in every felony division in all twenty circuits" - discussed in this blog here.

The Florida attorney general’s brief in support of the current drug law can be found here.  The Defendant’s brief arguing that the current drug law is unconstitutional can be found here.  The Supreme Court permitted several organizations to file briefs in this case on both sides of the legal issue.  The various organizations and links to their briefs are listed below:

Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association

Florida Public Defender Association

Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, et al

UPDATEFlorida Supreme Court Upholds State Drug Laws

Tagged in: drugs unconstitutional

Michael Buchanan is a practicing criminal defense attorney in Gainesville, Florida, with more than 25 years experience defending people accused of criminal misconduct. He is a former president of the Eighth Judicial Circuit chapter of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He is a member of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Read detailed professional biography here.