According to the president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the concept of criminal intent, also known as “mens rea,” is a bedrock principle of criminal law in the United States. Generally, to be convicted of a criminal charge, a person must have a criminal or wrongful purpose to commit a crime.
However, this year, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the state's controversial drug possession law, ruling that defendants must prove that they did not know they were carrying an illicit substance. This law is in disagreement with approximately 48 other states, which rest the burden of proof on the state. Most jurisdictions require prosecutors to prove that the defendants knew the substances that they were carrying were illegal.
The decision, Florida v. Adkins, came just one year after a federal judge in Orlando ruled that the entire Florida law was unconstitutional on its face under the due process clause. The judge noted the law’s departure from the concept that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. She called the Florida law "draconian and unreasonable." This assertion led to a series of dismissals in drug possession cases in the state.
Nevertheless, in a 5-2 ruling, the state recently upheld the 2002 law, which puts the burden of proof on defendants.
According to Justice Charles Canady, in eliminating the need for state prosecutors to prove that defendants knew what they were carrying was illegal, the Florida legislature was clear in its intent to address the problem of drug trafficking.
As the law currently stands, however, prosecutors must still prove that the suspect knew the drug was in their possession.
If a person possesses a controlled substance unintentionally, he or she can establish the affirmative defense available under the law, which precludes the conviction.
In dissent, Justice James Perry noted that the decision was flawed because it relied on the extreme notion that innocent individuals would almost never carry illegal drugs unknowingly. Justice Perry asserts that the potential for innocent possession is not unusual.
Because federal district court rulings are not binding in Florida, a comprehensive ruling on the issue depends on the U.S. Supreme Court, which has not addressed the issue.
Until the Supreme Court speaks to the matter, it will be imperative for criminal defendants to have a solid defense strategy.
If you have been accused of a drug crime in Florida, contact a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney today.