In a groundbreaking decision made yesterday, Judge Mary S. Scriven of Florida’s
Middle District declared part of an important Florida drug law unconstitutional. In a
43-page order that holds vast implications for the world of Miami criminal defense,
Judge Scriven threw out the cocaine-delivery charge brought against defendant Mackle
Shelton in a 2005 trial. Six years ago, Shelton received an 18 prison sentence for his
work as a cocaine delivery man. Shelton remains convicted of the seven other related
charges brought against him during the trial.
Scriven found the Florida law that Shelton was charged with breaking is unconstitutional
because it eliminated the need for a jury to establish the presence of mens rea, or “a
guilty mind”, in the defendant. This decision marks an important advance for the
cause of justice in the Florida criminal system. For years, the best efforts of Florida’s
criminal defense attorneys were too often unable to protect those individuals facing
such a charge. Scriven also took aim at certain changes made to the Drug Abuse
Prevention and Control law by the Florida state legislature in 2002, declaring them
unconstitutional on the same grounds.
The law in question specifically denies the right of anyone to “sell, manufacture, or
deliver, or possess with intent to sell, manufacture, or deliver, a controlled substance”
However, Judge Scriven writes that during the 2005 trial the jury was not instructed to
determine whether Mr. Shelton was conscious of the nature of his deliveries. The best
Miami criminal defense lawyers have always seen a problem with the law that allows
such a clearly erroneous practice. As Judge Scriven wrote, “Not surprisingly, Florida
stands alone in its express elimination of mens rea as an element of a drug offense.”
With luck, Judge Scriven’s order will have a lasting positive impact on the ability of
Miami’s criminal attorneys to fight for their clients’ rights.
Criminal defense lawyers in Florida will welcome the logic of Judge Scriven’s order.
She writes that “there is a long tradition throughout human existence of lawful delivery
and transfer of containers that might contain substances,” but “Under Florida’s statute,
that conduct is rendered immediately criminal if it turns out that the substance is a
controlled substance, without regard to the deliverer’s knowledge or intent.” This news
opens the doors for effective and competent Florida defense lawyers to provide their
clients with an additional opportunity for protection from harsh drug laws.
Judge Scriven’s order calls attention to the weaker points of Florida’s drugs laws that
have plagued Miami criminal defense attorneys, for years. She writes that there are
an infinite amount of possible scenarios in which one might legitimately not know they
are in possession of illegal drugs. Scriven specifically challenges the age-old argument
that the “possession of cocaine is never legal”, saying that it is inherently flawed.
Scriven cites rulings from several United States Supreme Court cases in her court order
and also points to the fact that there has not yet been an appellate case challenging
the law. Judge Scriven’s court order is a laudable effort toward increasing the justice of
the Florida legal system, and gives criminal defense lawyers a better ability to defend
In what appears to be a message specifically directed to prosecutors, Judge Scriven
writes that the traditional “tough luck” approach to such cases is not an acceptable
answer to the constitutionality of the law. Miami criminal defense lawyers, indeed
defense lawyers all over Florida, should welcome this news as an advance in
Judge Scriven sums up her assessment of the Florida drug law by writing, “the Florida
drug statute fails completely.” Defense lawyers all over Florida, particularly those
Miami criminal defense attorneys who see such a high proportion of drug offense
related cases, surely cannot help but to agree with Judge Scriven’s assessment of
Florida drug laws.