Court finds Florida’s Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Law Unconstitutional

Aug 08, 2011   

On July 27, 2011, Judge Mary Scriven of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida declared Floridas Drug Abuse Prevention and Control law, § 893.13, Fla. Stat. as amended by § 893.101, Fla. Stat., unconstitutional. The Court found that the law violated due process because it eliminated mens rea as an element of felony delivery of a controlled substance thus making the law a strict liability offense. A copy of the opinion can be read here.

Mens rea, a Latin phrase meaning “guilty mind,” is best described as the intent one has to commit a crime. As described by Judge Scriven, the concept of requiring not only an actus reus, i.e. a criminal act, as well as a mens rea, i.e. a criminal intent, to obtain a conviction is a fundamental part of American and common law criminal jurisprudence. These two requirements are reflected in the principle stated by Sir Edward Coke that the “act does make a person guilty unless the mind be also guilty.”

However, over time, the federal and state governments have developed numerous criminal statutes that require no proof of criminal intent. In order to be found guilty of violating such laws, the government is only required to prove that a person did the prohibited act, even if the actions occurred by accident or mistake. Laws that do not require a mens rea element are known as strict liability or in some cases, general intent offenses. A majority of strict liability offenses are regulatory or public welfare offenses which are crimes that punish actions a reasonable person should know would seriously threaten a communitys health or safety. Examples of regulatory offenses include the misbranding and adulteration provisions of the FDCA. See 21 U.S.C. § 331. Recently, the rise of the proliferation of strict liability crimes was the subject of an article in the Wall Street Journal. A copy of that article can be read here.

 Although legislatures can create strict liability offenses, they are generally disfavored by the courts. Courts will uphold such offenses as constitutional only if: 1) the penalty imposed in slight; 2) a conviction does not result in a substantial stigma to the offender; and 3) the statute regulates inherently dangerous or deleterious conduct. See Staples v. United States, 511 U.S. 600 (1994).

In this case, Mackel Shelton was convicted of delivery of cocaine, a controlled substance, in violation of Floridas Drug Abuse Prevention and Control law found at § 893.13, Fla. Stat. Under the statute, a person is guilty of a drug offense if: 1) he delivers any substance, and 2) the substance is a controlled substance under the act. Additionally, Floridas Drug Abuse Prevention and Control law expressly states that “knowledge of the illicit nature of a controlled substance is not an element of any offense under this chapter.” See § 893.101, Fla. Stat. As a result, a defendant could be convicted of deliver of cocaine “without regard to whether he does so purposefully, knowingly, recklessly or negligently.” Such was the basis of Mr. Sheltons conviction.

In finding that § 893.13 violates due process under the United States Constitution, Judge Scriven found that the statute failed all three prongs of the Staples analysis. First, the Court found that because the penalty associated with delivery of cocaine was a maximum of 15 years imprisonment, the penalty was too harsh to be enforced without the State being required to prove that Mr. Shelton acted with criminal intent. The Court noted that “no strict liability statute carrying penalties of the magnitude of Fla. Stat. § 893.13 has ever been upheld under federal law.” Second, the Court found that because a conviction under the statute was a second degree felony with a 15 year sentence, the statute “gravely besmirches an individuals reputation.” As a result, the Court ruled that the statute violated principles of due process because a conviction would result in a substantial stigma to the offender. Finally, the Court found that the statute violated due process as an unconstitutional strict liability offense because it criminalized inherently innocent conduct, namely the delivery of any substance. The Court explained that “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 a proof of mens rea in order to avoid criminalizing Ëœa broad range of apparently innocent conduct.”

The Courts Order provides a detailed analysis which can serve as a roadmap to criminal defendants and their attorneys seeking to challenge strict liability convictions. The white collar criminal defense lawyers at Fuerst Ittleman are experienced in handling even the most complex cases where clients are facing allegations of criminal actions. The attorneys of Fuerst Ittleman have defended clients in cases involving numerous general intent and strict liability offenses including, money laundering violations found at 18 U.S.C. § 1957, the operation of unlicensed money transmitting businesses found at 18 U.S.C. § 1960, and violations of the FDCA under 21 U.S.C. §§ 331 and 333 as well as prosecutions of corporate officials for FDCA violations under the Park Doctrine. For more information regarding Fuerst Ittlemans white collar criminal defense practice, contact an attorney today at contact@fidjlaw.com.