The Recent Florida Supreme Court Ruling Regarding Florida’s Drug Laws and What It Means for our Criminal Justice System
As a Clearwater drug defense Attorney, I have closely followed the recent Florida Supreme Court decision. We have all heard about the “presumption of innocence”, a constitutional right afforded to all citizens. However, does the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling regarding our drug laws toss that principle right out the window?  Consider the law detailing that the State, who brings charges against a defendant, has the burden of proof, and the defendant has no burden to prove his/her innocence. This latest opinion muddies those waters as well.Justice Perry’s dissent opposing the Court’s opinion presents many likely scenarios where a defendant could be in “innocent possession” of a controlled substance. It is not as uncommon as the majority opinion makes it seem. The majority believes that since Florida law contains a provision for an “affirmative defense”, an innocent person will not be convicted if they do not know of a substances illegal nature. That is putting a lot of faith in juries and/or judges and is a hefty assumption on the part of the Court. If a defendant finds himself charged with possessing a controlled substance, he then has two choices. He can plead guilty or go to trial. If he did not know that the substance was present, or was unaware of the illegal nature of the drug, of course he does not want to plead guilty. Consider the significant sentences, some mandatory under the law, if a person is found guilty and convicted under Florida’s drug laws. Penalties can range from probation to life in prison. A client that we represented was faced with this very decision recently. We will call the client Mr. Brooks. The State of Florida charged Mr. Brooks with Trafficking in Illegal Drugs (Hydrocodone) because when law enforcement stopped him on his bicycle for something unrelated, he had another person’s prescription pill bottle in his jacket pocket. The minimum mandatory for that charge is 15 years in prison. At trial, we presented evidence that Mr. Brooks had not opened the bottle, was not aware of exactly what was inside of it, and that he had picked it up from his mother’s driveway because her caretaker’s name was on the bottle. Mr. Brooks often saw the caretaker in the neighborhood and planned to return the bottle to him when he saw him again. The caretaker even testified at trial that it was his, and he likely dropped it during a visit to the elderly mother’s residence. The affirmative defense was that Mr. Brooks innocently possessed these narcotics that were only illegal because not prescribed to him, and he was unaware of the illicit nature of the substance because he had never actually opened or inspected the bottle. The jury found him guilty and the judge had no choice but to sentence Mr. Brooks to 15 years in prison. In Mr. Brooks’ case, and many others like it, he went into his trial presumed guilty because the state did not have to prove knowledge of the substance or any intention on the part of the defendant. All the state had to prove was that the substance was in Mr. Brooks’ possession and it was Hydrocodone. The burden then shifts to Mr. Brooks and those in his position to show lack of knowledge and why this illegal conduct should not be punished. This is no small feat, despite what the Supreme Court of Florida Justices (who wrote the majority opinion) believe, and it does not always prevent the conviction of an innocent person. As Justice Perry writes in his dissent: “Section 893.13 does no punish the drug dealer who possess or delivers controlled substances. It punishes anyone who possessed or delivers controlled substances-however inadvertently, however accidentally,however unintentionally….What distinguishes innocent possession and innocent delivery from guilty possession and guilty delivery is not merely what we possess, not merely what we deliver, but what we intend. As to that-as to the state of mind that distinguishes non-culpable from culpable possess or delivery- §893.13 refuses to make a distinction. The speckled flock and the clean are, for its purposes, all one.” This is the second in a series of articles discussing how this ruling will affect those charged with drug offenses in Florida. Powers Sellers & Finkelstein, PLC. is a full-service Pinellas County criminal defense firm. Conveniently located in Largo, our office is only minutes away for residents of Clearwater and St. Petersburg. Our attorneys regularly handle criminal defense for residents of Largo, Pinellas Park, Seminole, Madeira Beach, Indian Rocks, Kenneth City, St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg Beach, Treasure Island, Clearwater, Clearwater Beach, Safety Harbor, Dunedin, Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs. If you are in the need of assistance or for more information, please contact Powers Sellers & Finkelstein, PLC. at 1-855-PSF-FIRM or (727) 531-2926 for a free consultation and case evaluation.