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July 27, 2011

"Federal Judge Rules Florida’s Drug Laws Unconstitutional"

The title of this post is the headline of this press release from the NACDL reporting on a notable habeas ruling handed down today.  Here are highlights of the ruling in Shelton v. Florida DOC, No. No. 6:07-cv-839-Orl-35-KRS (M.D. Fla. July 27, 2011) (available here), as described by the NACDL the press release:

A federal judge in Orlando has declared Florida’s strict-liability controlled substances act unconstitutional on the ground that the law could convict an innocent person of drug distribution who unknowingly possessed, transported or delivered a controlled substance. The laws’ fatal flaw is the lack of a criminal intent requirement, which the legislature purposely removed from the statutes in 2002.

U.S. District Judge Mary S. Scriven found that Florida stands alone among the states in its express elimination of mens rea -- the common-law “guilty mind” requirement -- as an element of a drug offense.

The petitioner, Mackle Vincent Shelton, was convicted of delivery of a controlled substance and traffic charges.  The jury was instructed that “to prove the crime of delivery of cocaine, the state must prove the following two elements beyond a reasonable doubt: that Mackle Vincent Shelton delivered a certain substance; and, that the substance was cocaine.”  The state did not have to prove that he knew he was carrying or distributing cocaine or any controlled substance at all.

In granting Mr. Shelton’s petition for habeas corpus, the court found that Florida’s drug distribution law violates due process because it “regulates inherently innocent conduct.” Indeed, with no intent requirement, a Federal Express delivery person who unknowingly delivers a parcel containing a controlled substance, would be presumed a felon under Florida’s drug law.  Such a criminal statute runs afoul of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and is also inconsistent with centuries of common law, sound public policy, and the norms of international legal systems and principles generally embraced by the United States.

July 27, 2011 at 10:11 PM | Permalink


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I analyzed the opinion here: http://joshblackman.com/blog/?p=7695

Posted by: Josh Blackman | Jul 27, 2011 10:30:28 PM

Wow, Florida. Words fail.

Posted by: Anonymous | Jul 28, 2011 12:27:37 AM

When speaking about crime, conviction, and sentence within the framework of requiring mens rea, this decision shouldn't be a shock. What is a shock, however, is the proliferation of convictions within the federal system because this common-law requirement of criminal intent is not necessary.

Just this last Saturday, the Wall Street Journal published this article on exactly the same problem, except on the federal level. The article cites a study the NACDL participated in of laws proposed or enacted by the 109th U.S. Congress. It found that 25% of these laws had no mens rea requirement and 40% had only a "weak" one.

Yes, Anonymous, words do fail. However, it is not just Florida in where words, and criminal justice, fails.

Posted by: Eric Matthews | Jul 28, 2011 1:28:56 AM

Very nice work.

Posted by: beth | Jul 28, 2011 8:31:51 AM

Why would it be necessary to remove the mens rea requirement? It doesn't seem like it should have been very hard to get juries to infer knowledge/intent in the vast majority of cases where the evidence/circumstances would tend to support it.

Posted by: Anon | Jul 28, 2011 1:14:41 PM

I favor making all crime strict liability. The mens rea was copied from the Catechism analysis of mortal sin. To its credit, the Church claimed God would read the mind of the hunter who shot another, whether thinking the homicide victim was deer or was paid $10,000 by other hunter's wife. The supernatural ability to read minds was an attribute of God. I have no dispute with a faith based belief. I do have a problem when the criminal law of a secular nation with an Establishment Clause requires a supernatural ability attributable to God, to convict a person. This self-evident doctrine of intent free criminal law is not accepted. In the example of the careless hunter vs contract killer, who is more dangerous? The answer is absolutely not obvious. Sentencing authorities must answer that question and be held accountable in torts for any mistake made that causes damages. For the example, the accidental killer may be an alcoholic who wipes out a school bus of kids on the home from prison. If public safety is the priority of the criminal law, he may be detained as long as the contract killer. If this rejection of Church origin requirement is offensive, substitute Sharia law. I have read their hornbook. About 90% is quite sensible, less procedural, and more humane. Ten per cent is goofy. But Sharia is totally unacceptable as a basis of law. Why is the Catechism any more acceptable?

That being said, the way the law is today is that proof must be offered of intent of every element of a crime. The Florida statute is therefore unconstitutional. So, I have to commend the federal court in Orlando for its decision in this instance.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 28, 2011 6:13:45 PM

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