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Federal Ruling Raises Questions in Many Tampa Bay Area Drug Cases

Many Tampa Bay drug cases are now in question after a federal judge ruled a Florida drug law unconstitutional. Many area defense attorneys have already filed motions to dismiss some pending drug cases, citing the new ruling.

U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven of Orlando said in her ruling last week that a "draconian and unreasonable" Florida law violates the U.S. Constitution by allowing people to be convicted of drug possession even if they didn't intend to possess drugs. Examples include a courier charged with drug possession because he unknowingly delivered a package containing drugs and a student charged with drug possession after a friend secretly hid drugs in his bookbag.

Despite the finding of unconstitutionality, many courts (and most prosecutors) take the stance that the ruling is not yet controlling on state courts because it was made by a federal court judge. "What we have is a federal opinion that is not final and is not controlling on state courts," said Michael Sinacore, felony bureau chief at the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office.

So far, Hillsborough County judges and most around the region feel bound to follow opinions upholding the possession law made by state appellate courts. While they may feel that the federal opinion is persuasive in its logic, they are currently biding by precedential rulings upholding the law by Florida's 2nd, 3rd and 4th District Courts of Appeal.

Their position is that the appellate process in federal court has not yet concluded. The federal judge's ruling then is still pending and not yet binding on state courts. Until that process is complete, the circuit-level judges are likely to feel that their hands are tied by state court appellate precedent.

That will not keep many defense attorneys from filing their motions to dismiss. While the current chances of dismissal appear slim, there are hopes that one judge might step out on his or her own and rule in accordance with the federal case and/or that the motions and risk might lead to productive plea negotiations with prosecutors.

The state has already filed a notice that it will appeal the federal court ruling. "We strongly disagree with the federal judge's interpretation of Florida's drug law, and we are hopeful that this matter will be resolved in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals," Attorney General Pam Bondi said Thursday in a statement. "If necessary, we will fight this matter in the United States Supreme Court."

It is quite probable that the legislature will address the constitutional deficiencies by amending the law. Any amendment, however, would not apply ex post facto (retroactively), leaving the status of those charged and/or convicted under the current law up in the air.

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