In a recent Order in Shelton v. Secretary, Dept. of Corrections, No. 6:07–cv–839–Orl–35–KRS, 2011 WL 3236040, (M.D. Fla. July 27, 2011), the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida granted a petition for writ of habeas corpus based upon a finding that the statute under which Shelton was convicted, Florida section 893.13, is unconstitutional.
In the Order, the Court examined how, in 2002, the Florida Legislature came to pass Florida’s Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Law, and observed that when the Legislature passed the amendment, Florida became the only State in the nation to eliminate the knowledge element (mens rea) of a drug offense. The Court observed that even though strict liability criminal offenses have been found to pass constitutional muster in certain instances, no strict liability offense with penalties as harsh as those in Florida section 893.13 has ever been upheld under federal law. (The Florida statute imposes penalties of 15 years, 30 years, and life imprisonment).
The issuance of this opinion has already unleashed a flurry of activity in criminal cases. However, people convicted under section 893.13 and Florida criminal defense attorneys need to be aware of the fact that not everyone may entitled to automatic relief. Why? Here’s a few things to consider:
1.) Since the Order was issued in a Federal court habeas proceeding, the ruling may not be binding in all the State court cases that are pending right now. There may be an appeal of this decision, which means that Shelton might effectively remain “up in the air” for some period of time.
2.) Undoubtedly, Florida criminal defense attorneys will be filings motions for relief based on Shelton in cases that are pending in the Florida State courts right now. However, because the Shelton opinion is not binding upon them until it becomes the law of the land, as declared by the United States Supreme Court, each State court (that is, each Judge) may decide things differently.
3.) For those who were already convicted under section 893.13 before the Shelton opinion issued, the issue of whether Shelton will apply retroactively (backwards) arises. New rules of law don’t always apply retroactively.
For a starting point on the issue of retroactivity of changes in the law, both substantive and procedural, you may wish to review the cases of Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320 (1997), and Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989).