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Federal Appellate Court Refuses To Find Florida’s Drug Statute Unconstitutional

On August 24, 2012, the United States Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the Federal District Court that had found Florida’s drug statute unconstitutional in the case of Mackle Shelton vs State of Florida.   The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals did not actually decide the constitutional issue presented, finding instead that consideration of the defendant’s question of law was procedurally barred under the provisions of the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996.  The lower court that was reversed had found that the Florida drug statute’s failure to require proof of knowing possession of contraband violated due process of law.

Case History and Background

In 2005, a Florida jury convicted Mackle Vincent Shelton of delivery of cocaine.  In accordance with Florida’s amended drug statute, the jury was not instructed that Shelton’s knowledge of the illicit nature of what he possessed was an element of the offense.  Rather, the jury was instructed as follows:    

    To prove the crime of delivery of cocaine, the State must prove the
    following two elements beyond a reasonable doubt:
    [1] That Mackle Vincent Shelton delivered a certain substance; and,
    [2] That the substance was cocaine.
The jury found Shelton guilty and he was sentenced to eighteen years in prison.

Shelton’s appeals to the state courts of Florida were all unsuccessful, though no Florida state appellate Court issued a written opinion in his case.   Shelton then turned to federal habeas corpus relief and filed a petition in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida.  Federal District Court Judge Mary Scriven declared Florida’s controlled substances law unconstitutional because of it’s failure to require proof of the accused’s knowledge of the illicit nature of what was possessed.  See Blog: Federal Judge Declares Florida's Drug Law Unconstituional.  The State of Florida appealed to the Federal Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Ruling

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals found that Shelton's appeal was procedurally barred due to the narrow criteria for habeas corpus relief under the provisions of the AEDPA.  Read the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion here.  The Court stated that a federal appellate court may not grant a petitioner’s habeas relief on a claim that was adjudicated on the merits by the state court unless the state court decision was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court.”

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Florida Courts had adjudicated the issue on the merits (even though no written opinion was issued) and then found that Florida’s drug statute as written did not involve an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law as determined by the United States Supreme Court.  The 11th Circuit Court gave great deference to the Florida Supreme Court’s recent ruling upholding the drug statute in  the case of State of Florida vs. Luke Jarrod AdkinsSee Blog: Florida Supreme Court Upholds State Drug Laws.  The essential holding of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in this matter is as follows:

To be clear, this Court expresses no view on the underlying constitutional question, as we limit our analysis to AEDPA’s narrow inquiry. That inquiry leads us to conclude that nothing in the U.S. Reports decides or implies resolution of the novel issue of the Florida Act’s constitutionality, and we cannot find Florida’s adjudication to be unreasonable under AEDPA.

It is likely that Shelton will seek review of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision by the United States Supreme Court.  It is, of course, impossible to predict whether the United States Supreme Court will actually allow review of the issue presented in this case.  For now, the law in Florida is clear - a person may be convicted of drug delivery or possession even if there is no evidence that the accused had knowledge of the illicit nature of the item possessed.

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