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Miami court revives constitutionality of state illegal drug law

A state appeals court on Wednesday rejected a federal judge’s controversial ruling that Florida’s drug statute is unconstitutional. Story here.

Miami-Dade’s Third District Court of Appeal said it did not agree with a ruling by U.S. Judge Mary Scriven, of Osceola County, which said Florida’s drug law was “draconian” because prosecutors don’t have to prove that the accused actually knew of the illicit nature of the drugs they were carrying.

Scriven’s ruling, in Shelton v. Department of Corrections, has sparked thousands of requests statewide from defendants seeking their freedom.

At the heart of the issue is Florida’s Drug Abuse Prevention and Control law. In May 2002, the Legislature changed the state’s existing law, removing the burden of authorities to prove that the accused had “knowledge” of the illicit nature of the drugs, although the defendants could raise that defense at trial.

In Miami-Dade, about 60 judges have rejected efforts to dismiss charges based on Scriven’s ruling, according to Assistant State Attorney Christine Zahralban, who is in charge of litigation in these cases.

Only one judge, Milton Hirsh, agreed with Scriven, tossing out scores of drug cases in rulings that have been hailed by defense lawyers but derided by police and prosecutors.

Wednesday’s Third DCA opinion also noted that it rejected Hirsch’s ruling, although it was not ruling directly on cases from his court. The appeals court actually upheld a decision by another Miami-Dade judge rejecting an appeal by Jasper Little, 49, convicted in 2003 and 2004 of cocaine possession and selling cocaine.

“Today’s decision strongly reaffirms the constitutionality of Florida’s drug laws used by prosecutors and law enforcement officers in their daily battle against drugs,” Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said in a statement.

-- David Ovalle