TALLAHASSEE — A Florida law that requires people caught with illegal drugs in their possession to prove their innocence has been upheld by the state Supreme Court.
Unlike virtually every other state in the country where it's up to a prosecutor to prove guilt, the 2002 Florida law puts the burden on the person caught with an illegal drug. For example, if someone wraps a package of cocaine and asks someone else to deliver it to a friend across town and that person gets nabbed, he or she is automatically in a jam under the Florida law.
"What will become of the innocent?" asked Justice James Perry, who disagreed with his colleagues. "Under the majority's decision and the above examples, the innocent will from the start be presumed guilty."
The court ruled 5-2 Thursday that any defendant is presumed to have known what was inside the package was something illegal. Virtually every other state requires prosecutors to convince jurors the defendant knew that the contents were illegal. The state must still be able to prove the defendant knew they were in possession of something, but doesn't have to prove knowledge that it was an illegal substance.
The decision reversed a Manatee County judge's decision that struck down the 2002 law. Circuit Judge Scott Brownell ruled it violates due process.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady said the law does not violate due process. Canady, who wrote the majority opinion, left little doubt where he stood during oral arguments on the case in December.
"Isn't the reality here that these drugs that are illicit are valuable and the people who own them don't just go casting them about at random?" he asked.
Brownell's decision, however, was similar to an earlier ruling by a federal judge, which is also being appealed. If the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta should disagree with the Florida decision, the issue likely will go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
If the Florida Supreme Court had ruled to strike down the controversial law, it could have led to hundreds of prison inmates being set free.
When the law was passed in 2002, Florida became the only state not to require that a suspect have knowledge that a controlled substance is illegal to be convicted.