How Will Florida Courts Respond to Federal Court’s Ruling Striking Down Florida Drug Law?

courthouse1.jpgFlorida defense attorneys have reason to celebrate because–as you know–a Federal court in Orlando found Florida’s drug laws unconstitutional (Shelton v. Secretary, Department of Corrections, 23 Fla. L. Weekly Fedl D11a (M.D. Fla. July 27, 2011)). But, must our local Florida state courts follow this Federal ruling?

This issue has come up before. In Wiegand v. Seaver, 504 F.2d 303 (5th Cir. 1974), a Federal court found Florida’s disorderly conduct statute to be unconstitutional. Based upon this Federal ruling, a Florida trial court dismissed disorderly conduct charges, noting that “this court finds that under the law of the land by which this court is bound, said Florida Statute 877.03 is unconstitutional and in violation of the Constitution of the United States”. State v. Dwyer, 332 So. 2d 333 (Fla. 1976).

Our Florida Supreme Court disagreed with the trial court’s dismissal of Dwyer’s charges, noting that the federal holding was not binding on Florida trial courts because the statute had already been held constitutional in a prior state court decision. Basically, the Dwyer decision stands for the proposition that, when a Florida court has already ruled on an issue (such as the constitutionality of a statute), Florida courts must follow that ruling–not a federal ruling on the same issue (unless the opinion comes from the United States Supreme Court, of course).

Now our analysis turns to whether or not a Florida court, in a drug possession case or drug trafficking case (for example), must follow a federal decision regarding the constitutionality of the state drug statute. The Florida Supreme Court in Dwyer stated that we must first look to Florida rulings for guidance. And, this is where we may run into some trouble. Within the last year, several Florida court of appeals have struck down constitutional challenges to the drug laws found in Florida Statute 893.13.

For example, in Johnson v. State, 37 So.3d 975 (Fla. 1st DCA 2010), the Defendant was convicted of sale or delivery of cocaine and he appealed “the constitutionality of that statue, in that it makes the offense a felony without requiring that guilty knowledge be an element of the crime”. Id. The court denied the appeal in a short opinion, noting that the First District upheld the drug law in Harris v. State, 932 So.2d 551 (Fla. 1st DCA 2006), reasoning that the legislature was entitled to remove the “guilty knowledge” element of a drug charge, and that said removal does not violate a citizen’s right to due process because the law allows the “knowledge” element to be an “affirmative defense”. For those of you wanting a deeper analysis, check out the Fourth District’s opinion in Wright v. State of Florida, 920 So.2d 21 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005).

Every Florida case cited above found our drug law constitutional. Every one of these courts is wrong. Sometimes, it takes someone outside the “system” to start positive change. Out of 50 states, only Florida allows drug convictions without guilty knowledge. In 43 pages, the federal court in Shelton has told the Florida courts why they’re wrong. Hopefully, somebody is listening.