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Federal Judge Tosses Florida Drug Law for Lack of Mens Rea

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By Robyn Hagan Cain on August 08, 2011 4:04 PM

If you started law school after 2001, the year that Elle Woods defended her client by defining mens rea to the court in Legally Blonde, you probably entered your first criminal law class knowing that a conviction requires guilty knowledge.

It seems that the Florida legislature disregarded that legal and cinematic pearl of wisdom. In 2002, the legislature amended the state's Drug Abuse Prevention and Control law to eliminate mens rea. At the end of July, a federal judge in Florida overturned the law, noting that "Florida stands along in its express elimination of mens rea as an element of a drug offense."

The legislature amended the law to circumvent Florida Supreme Court rulings that held that people can be only be convicted of possession of controlled substances if they knowingly possessed controlled substances. Under the amendment, it was incumbent upon a defendant to offer lack of knowledge as an affirmative defense; that shifted the burden of proof to the defendant to overcome a “permissive presumption that the possessor knew of the illicit nature of the substance.”

The appellant in the case, Mackle Vincent Shelton, was sentenced to 18 years in jail after a 2005 drug conviction. According to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), the only issues that jurors had to consider at Shelton’s trial were if Shelton delivered a controlled substance and if that substance was cocaine.

The NACDL reasoned that, by the same criteria, “a Federal Express delivery person who unknowingly delivers a parcel containing a controlled substance, would be presumed a felon under Florida’s drug law.”

The decision will likely trigger a ripple effect through Florida appeals courts as other post-2002 drug defendants begin challenging their convictions under the overturned Florida drug law.

We understand the average person’s dismissal of Ms. Woods’ legal musings; she wore too much pink, she asked compound questions, and she testified instead of asking her witness questions on cross-examination, not to mention she was a fictional character. The Florida legislature has no such out. Wasn’t there a legislative counsel available to advise the law-makers that drug delivery is not a strict liability crime?

So the question remains: Will the state appeal to the Eleventh Circuit or set about changing the Florida drug law?

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