News Release

Federal Judge Rules Florida's Drug Laws Unconstitutional

‘Atavistic and Repugnant to the Common Law’  

Washington DC (July 27, 2011) – 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.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, along with the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the Drug Policy Alliance, the Calvert Institute for Policy Research, and 38 law professors filed a friend-of-the-court brief in January calling the 2002 statutes “atavistic and repugnant to the common law.” The court cited the amicus curiae brief favorably in its opinion.

NACDL and its coalition partners congratulate Mr. Shelton’shabeas lawyers, James E. Felman and Katherine Earle Yanes, of Tampa. Mr. Felman told NACDL, “This is a courageous ruling by the federal court enforcing the most fundamental principles of our Constitution against erosion by the Florida Legislature. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to present this due process challenge to Florida's strict liability drug statutes. If these statutes, permitting life imprisonment without any proof of criminal intent, can pass constitutional muster, it is difficult to see what constitutional lines could be left to draw between the present and Mr. Orwell's vision of the future.”

NACDL Executive Director Norman Reimer, who was traveling and learned of the decision by telephone, said, “This is a victory for the most fundamental notions of fairness and justice in our system – the idea that no one should suffer a conviction unless the state proves criminal intent beyond a reasonable doubt. As I previously said about this case, the country has been drifting away from the moral anchor of a clearly defined mens rea requirement in its criminal laws. Laws like these would run it aground.”

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The judge struck down Mr. Shelton’s drug conviction and ordered that he be resentenced on the traffic charges. The jury acquitted Mr. Shelton of assault.

A copy of Judge Scriven’s opinion is available on NACDL’s Web site for downloading by clicking here

The Amicus Curiae brief filed by NACDL et al. is here.

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NACDL Communications Department

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal legal system.