At odds with 48 other states in the Union, Florida now has become a state where possession without intent is a crime.
What this means is that when someone is found with drugs either on their person or under their control, the excuse, “I didn’t know that was an illegal substance” won’t work.
At least not without proving it to a jury.
A hypothetical case should make it clear why this law is a problem.
Suppose you are pulled over for a traffic offense and, not fearing any discovery, you allow the police to search your car. They find some “white powder” in a bag labeled “salt.” To your surprise, it tests positive for cocaine. Even if you had no idea it was cocaine, you now have to prove it in court instead of the police having to prove you did know.
The “unknowing possession” covers many situations where drugs are found not in someone’s pocket or purse but in an area around or near them. This is why police will try to get suspects to say something about drugs – usually admit they know what the substance is. The police want to establish that suspects know the material is an illegal drug and that they knew it was there.
In a 5-4 decision, the Florida Supreme Court saved the State from having to retry dozens of cases, saying in the majority opinion that,
“The conduct the Legislature seeks to curtail is the sale, manufacture, delivery, or possession of a controlled substance, regardless of the defendant’s subjective intent.”
Reporting on the matter says this puts Florida at odds with federal rulings that fall the other way. The technical term is “criminal intent.” If you unknowingly commit a crime, should you suffer the consequences? In some cases, criminal intent doesn’t matter – as in statutory rape. In fact, that’s why it’s called “statutory” in the first place.
It is possible the matter will go all the way to the US Supreme Court.