Florida Court Makes it Easier to Unknowingly Commit Crimes

I like to think I know a thing or two about the excesses of the war on drugs, but I had no idea that the legal situation in Florida was this ugly:

Florida will remain one of the only two states in the country that sends people to prison on drug possession charges without first proving the person knew what they were carrying was illegal.

In a decision that will assure thousands will remain behind bars on a charge that many defense attorneys and some judges insist is blatantly unconstitutional, a divided Florida Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the state’s drug possession law.

“There is no constitutional right to possess contraband,” Justice Charles Canady wrote for the majority. “Nor is there a protected right to be ignorant of the nature of the property in one’s possession.”

Dissenting justice Justice James E.C. Perry gave some examples of what it would be like if this principle applied to other laws:

“Could the legislature amend its murder statute such that the state could meet its burden of proving murder by proving that a defendant touched another and the victim died as a result?” he asked, quoting from a federal judge who like several circuit judges in the state struck down the statute as unconstitutional. “Could the state prove felony theft by proving that a defendant was in possession of an item that belonged to another, leaving the defendant to prove he did not take it?”

Perry goes on to give examples of how this ruling could be abused:

He offered several examples of innocent people who could be trapped. He offered, “a letter carrier who delivers a package containing unprescribed Adderall; a roommate who is unaware that the person who shares his apartment has hidden illegal drugs in the common areas of the home; a mother who carries a prescription pill bottle in her purse, unaware that the pills have been substituted for illegally obtained drugs by her teenage daughter, who placed them in the bottle to avoid detection.”

The response from Palm Beach County State Attorney Peter Antonacci is telling:

Antonacci said prosecutors aren’t likely to waste time going after a letter carrier or a hapless mother. “We have enough to do,” he said.

So innocent Florida citizens are protected from prosecution under this law because the prosecutors’ offices are understaffed? That’s not very reassuring. And what’s really troubling about Antonacci’s response is what he doesn’t say: He seems not the least bit concerned that the letter carrier and the hapless mother didn’t do anything wrong.

West Palm Beach defense attorney Kai Li Aloe Fouts isn’t so certain. “You’ve got good cops and you’ve got bad cops. You’ve got good prosecutors. You’ve got bad prosecutors,” she said. “We have cases every single day, where we’re scratching our heads, wondering, “Why was this filed?’ “

Exactly. Laws that leave opportunities for abuse by prosecutors are inimical to the rule of law. What if that letter carrier with the package full of illegal Adderall is a young black male who was disrespectful of the cops who arrested him? What if that “hapless mother” with the bottle full of the wrong drugs is community activist who has been critical of the mayor? Maybe then the prosecutors would find the time to press charges.

9 Responses to Florida Court Makes it Easier to Unknowingly Commit Crimes

  1. Judges and prosecutors like those quoted in this article aren’t concerned with the lack of intent when drugs are concerned. To them, drugs are a sin as serious as blasphemy is to any fundamentalist (of any religion). There is no middle ground between guilty and innocent, no plea of not guilty allowed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you touched the evil drugs, you must be punished. It’s like the zero tolerance in so many schools, where even drawing a picture of a weapon is grounds for punishment. I don’t know whether attributing the lack of intelligence associated with zero tolerance to these judges and prosecutors is more frightening than the other possibility: that they are merely evil people who believe they have the right to punish others for a non-crime.

  2. I for one am grateful to Peter Antonacci for providing such an excellent reason to keep the Palm Beach State Attorney’s office understaffed.

    In theory, one could now remove Justice Canady from the bench by mailing him a gift of weed, and then tipping off the appropriate authorities. Soon as he picks up that package, he’s busted! Of course, in our “all pigs are equal, but some are more equal than others” society, I expect that the Justice’s “I didn’t know what was in the package” would be enough to get him off the hook, via prosecutorial discretion.

  3. Does this mean that I have to search my vehicle every time before I drive it to make sure somebody else didn’t leave drugs in it (like patrol officers who share patrol cars are supposed to do at the beginning of each shift)? One time, I opened my vehicle door and a marijuana cigarette fell out onto the ground. Thankfully, it didn’t happen as I stepped out of the vehicle because I was ordered out by a cop. (And, no, I don’t use illegal drugs, and never have–but I’m still for drug legalization, partly because of this “cigarette incident.”)

  4. Good question, Daniel. The only way it makes logical sense to hold you responsible for unknowing possession of drugs is when you have a positive duty to ensure you are not in possession of drugs. So, yeah, I think they’re implying that you should have searched the car — or better yet, your passengers before allowing them in the car — as crazy as that sounds.

    Actually, as I understand it, this is mostly about the burden of proof: They don’t have to prove you knew it, but in your defense, you can still offer evidence that you didn’t know it. I’m not sure what practical effect that has on whether we should be strip searching our passengers.

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