Is Knowledge Necessary in Drug Possession?

When the police were called to disarm a 21-year-old Florida man threatening suicide, few would foresee that the ensuing legal case held the potential to lead to the dismissal of over 40 drug-possession cases and, as the appellate court noted, the possible release of hundreds, possibly even thousands, of people from Florida prisons. And, all because Luke Adkins allegedly possessed a small amount of marijuana at the time the police responded to the call.

Drug Possession Generally

Before a person can be found guilty of possessing an illegal drug like marijuana or prescription drugs, the authorities need to prove all the elements of the crime. Generally, the required elements of drug possession include:

  • The person was in possession of a substance or drug
  • The substance was a substance or drug that is illegal to possess
  • The person knew the substance was illegal to possess

Florida's drug-possession law is fairly unique because of how the knowledge element is proved.

How Florida Law Is Different

For most crimes, two essential parts must be proven before the individual can be convicted of the offense: the "actus reus" and the "mens rea." Meaning, the act of committing a crime (actus reus) and the intent to commit a crime (mens rea), sometimes referred to as "guilty mind." So, in most instances, for a person to be found guilty of a crime, both the act and criminal intent need to be proven. And, in every state except Florida, for a person to be convicted of drug possession, this holds true.

The difference between Florida and other jurisdictions is how the knowledge element of a drug possession charge is proven. In most jurisdictions, it must be proven that the person charged knew that the substance or drug in his or her possession is illegal to possess. In Florida, a person just needs to be in possession of the illegal substance or drug to be guilty of drug possession, regardless of whether he or she knew it is illegal to possess — possession implies knowledge.

In 2002, the Florida Legislature changed the law to say that, when a person has exclusive possession of an illegal substance or drug — for instance, an illegal drug is found in a purse, pocket or backpack in the control of the person — that is enough proof that the person knew the illicit nature of the substance or drug, even if the person truthfully believed the substance or drug was legal to possess or believed the substance or drug to be something altogether different, like a spice.

What The Law Change Meant For The Accused

Under the new law, a person could be accused of drug possession for holding the purse or backpack of a friend, if the purse or backpack contained illegal drugs. Even if the person accused of drug possession didn't know the substance is illegal to possess or even that it was in the bag, he or she could still be charged, all for holding the bag of a friend.

An article from WJHG, the NBC station in Panama City, quoted Randall Marshall of the ACLU of Florida as saying that, under the new law, "The person could be arrested, prosecuted, and put in jail for the rest of their [sic] life for believing they were doing a friend a favor."

Burden Shifted To Defendants

Even though the law change allows for the knowledge element of drug possession to be implied, there is an affirmative defense to the charge: not knowing the substance or drug was illegal.

For a person who wants to assert the affirmative defense, the burden of proof shifts to him or her. Meaning, instead of the prosecution having to prove that the accused is guilty of the crime (in this case, had knowledge that the substance or drug was illicit), the accused now has to prove his or her innocence or lack of knowledge as to the illicit nature of the substance or drug.

As a blog post on Jacksonville.com points out, Florida's drug-possession law takes the idea that people are presumed innocent until proven guilty and "upends" it.

The Case Before The Florida Supreme Court

In September 2011, a Florida Circuit Court judge dismissed drug-possession charges against Luke Adkins and more than 40 other Manatee County defendants. The judge ruled that the 2002 drug-possession law is unconstitutional because it contravenes constitutional due process requirements.

After the ruling, the state immediately appealed the decision. And, without issuing a decision, an appellate court sent the case to the Florida Supreme Court.

In early December 2011, the case of Luke Jarrod Adkins et. al v. Florida was argued before the Florida Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court's decision in this case could have wide-reaching implications. If the circuit court's decision to declare the law unconstitutional is upheld, many people convicted of drug possession since the passage of the law in 2002 could be affected; some people may even be released from prison after their cases are reviewed.

If you or a loved one has been accused or convicted of drug possession, speak with an experienced Florida criminal defense attorney to discuss the possible implications of the Adkins case on your situation.