Friday, September 02, 2011

DUI Law - Florida Requires Mental State for Felony Drunk Driving

In Shelton v. Secretary, Dep't of Corrections, Slip Copy, 2011 WL 3236040 (M.D.Fla.) the United States District Court held that a Florida drug statute which expressly eliminated mens rea was unconstitutional. As noted by the court, Florida exempted itself from the age-old axiom: “The act does not make a person guilty unless the mind be also guilty.” DAD recommends that the entire opinion be reviewed by the reader with the question in mind being:

Is a Felony DUI based upon "any amount of drug" in the system also unconstitutional? Are other DUI statutes that carry severe penalties without mens rea also unconstitutional?

A recent DUI drugs case in Illinois, People v. Martin, is illustrative of this issue. There, a person who had mere nanograms of methamphetamine in his system (so small that it was missed during both hospital and police lab tests) was held criminally responsible for an accident involving the death of another individual, simply because these nanograms from illegal drug use days or weeks earlier still remained in his system. the Illinois Supreme Court held that there was nop need to prove impairment, or proximate cause between the drug use and the injury/accident, in order to impose a jail sentence of 3-14 years.

Here are some of the good quotes from the below opinion of the U.S. District Court:

"The requirement to prove some mens rea to establish guilt for conduct that is criminalized is firmly rooted in Supreme Court jurisprudence and, as reflected in the ineffectual response by the State to this petition, cannot be gainsaid here. Well established principles of American criminal law provide:

The contention that an injury can amount to a crime only when inflicted by intention is no provincial or transient notion. It is as universal and persistent in mature systems of law as belief in freedom of the human will and a consequent ability and duty of the normal individual to choose between good and evil. A relation between some mental element and punishment for a harmful act is almost as instinctive as the child's familiar exculpatory ‘But I didn't mean to,’ and has afforded the rational basis for a tardy and unfinished substitution of deterrence and reformation in place of retaliation and vengeance as the motivation for public prosecution.... [T]o constitute any crime there must first be a ‘vicious will.’"

* * *

"To be sure, the law recognizes the authority of government to fashion laws that punish without proof of intent, but not without severe constraints and constitutional safeguards. As the Supreme Court explained:

"[T]he Due Process Clause requires the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt all of the elements included in the definition of the offense of which the defendant is charged. Proof of the nonexistence of all affirmative defenses has never been constitutionally required; and we perceive no reason to fashion such a rule in this case and apply it to the statutory defense at issue here.

This view may seem to permit state legislatures to reallocate burdens of proof by labeling as affirmative defenses at least some elements of the crimes now defined in their statutes. But there are obviously constitutional limits beyond which the States may not go in this regard."

* * * *

"It cannot reasonably be asserted that the penalty for violating Florida's drug statute is “relatively small.” A violation of § 893.13(1)(a)(1), for delivery of a controlled substance as defined in Schedule I, Fla. Stat. 893.03(1), is a second degree felony, ordinarily punishable by imprisonment for up to fifteen years. Fla. Stat. § 775.082(3)(c). For habitual violent felony offenders, such as Petitioner, a violation of § 893.13(1)(a)(1) is punishable by imprisonment for up to thirty years and includes a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence. See Fla. Stat. § 775.084(1)(b). Other provisions of Florida's drug statute subject offenders to even harsher penalties, including ordinary imprisonment for thirty years for first time offenders and life imprisonment for recidivists. See, e.g., Fla. Stat. §§ 893.13(1)(b)

(delivery of more than 10 grams of a schedule I substance); § 893.13(1)(c) (delivery of cocaine within 1,000 feet of a child care facility, school, park, community center, or public recreational facility).


"No strict liability statute carrying penalties of the magnitude of Fla. Stat. § 893.13 has ever been upheld under federal law. In fact, the Supreme Court has considered a penalty of up to three years' imprisonment or a fine not exceeding $100,000.00 too harsh to impose on a strict liability offense. See Gypsum, 438 U.S. at 442. In Gypsum, the Supreme Court considered the penalties for an individual violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act and opined, “[t]he severity of these sanctions provides further support for our conclusion that the [Act] should not be construed as creating strict-liability crimes.” Id. Similarly, in Staples, the Supreme Court declined to construe the National Firearms Act as a strict liability statute given its “harsh” penalty of up to ten years' imprisonment. Staples, 511 U.S. at 616. As the Supreme Court explained:

" The potentially harsh penalty attached to violation of § 5861(d)-up to 10 years' imprisonment-confirms our reading of the Act. Historically, the penalty imposed under a statute has been a significant consideration in determining whether the statute should be construed as dispensing with mens rea. Certainly, the cases that first defined the concept of the public welfare offense almost uniformly involved statutes that provided for only light penalties such as fines or short jail sentences, not imprisonment in the state penitentiary."

* * * *

" [W]hile the Third and Sixth Circuits disagree over whether the outer bounds of due process lie at a one or two-year strict liability sentence, the State does not cite, and the Court has not located, any precedent applying federal law to sustain a penalty of fifteen years, thirty years, and/or life imprisonment for a strict liability offense. In fact, at least one Circuit Court of Appeals has expressly stated that a twenty-year strict liability provision would be unconstitutional. See United States v. Heller, 579 F.2d 990 (6th Cir.1978). In Heller, the Sixth Circuit considered an interstate extortion/kidnapping statute that was silent regarding mens rea and carried a maximum penalty of twenty years' imprisonment. Id. at 993. The Sixth Circuit held that a mens rea element must be inferred by judicial construction because the statute would otherwise violate due process. Id. at 994 (elucidating, “if Congress attempted to define a Malum prohibitum offense that placed an onerous stigma on an offender's reputation and that carried a severe penalty, the Constitution would be offended[.]”).

* * * 

“Tough Luck!” is no Answer to the Constitutional Infirmity of Fla. Stat. § 893.13

"The Court declines to grant the State broad, sweeping authority to impose such an outcome in direct contravention of well-established principles of American criminal jurisprudence—that no individual should be subjected to condemnation and prolonged deprivation of liberty unless he acts with criminal intent—and binding Supreme Court precedent governing the constitutional analysis of strict liability offenses. See Staples, 511 U.S. at 619–20. Because Fla. Stat. § 893.13 imposes harsh penalties, gravely besmirches an individual's reputation, and regulates and punishes otherwise innocuous conduct without proof of knowledge or other criminal intent, the Court finds it violates the due process clause and that the statute is unconstitutional on its face. Accordingly, Petitioner's request for habeas relief on claim one is GRANTED.

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