Williams didn’t know the drug, clonazepam, was a controlled substance, she said, and she didn’t realize that by carrying it, she was committing a felony.
“The whole thing was just a mess,” she said Friday.
The law that snagged Williams, a psychology student at the University of Central Florida, is now being challenged by hundreds of drug defendants across the state.
That’s because on July 27, U.S. District Judge Mary S. Scriven declared it unconstitutional, ruling that it violated an individual’s right to due process.
Its flaw, according to her: Prosecutors don’t have to prove that a defendant knew he was breaking the law, only that he was delivering or had possession of a controlled substance — for example, cocaine or a wide variety of prescription medicine.
Florida is the only state with such a law, she pointed out.
Her ruling came in the case of Mackle Shelton, who had been sentenced to 18 years in prison after being convicted in Osceola County of cocaine delivery and other charges.
“Shelton has produced a category five hurricane in the Florida criminal practice community,” wrote Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch. On Wednesday, he agreed with Scriven, throwing out 39 drug cases.
But judges in Santa Rosa and Escambia counties have ruled the other way.
Central Florida judges must make up their own minds.
On Friday, Circuit Judge Renee Roche in Orlando listened to assistant public defenders argue on behalf of three drug defendants but ran out of time and asked them to come back.
On Thursday, Circuit Judge Debra S. Nelson in Sanford held five hearings and said she would rule next week.
“I’m certain that any legitimate defense attorney would be raising it in all their drug cases,” said Bill Ponell, president of the Central Florida Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys.
Orange-Osceola Public Defender Robert Wesley said his lawyers would.
“It’ll be like dominoes,” he said.
Prosecutors say Scriven’s ruling may be persuasive but that it should have no impact on state courts. They are required to follow the rulings of Florida’s district courts of appeal and Florida Supreme Court — not a U.S. district judge.
“We believe the law that we’ve followed for many years is the proper law now,” said William Eddins, state attorney in Escambia and three other Panhandle counties and president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association.
According to defense attorneys, the Florida Legislature created the problem in 2002, when it added three paragraphs to the state’s drug statute.
Its sponsors included Allan G. Bense of Panama City, who would become House speaker in two years; Gus Bilarikis of Palm Harbor, now a member of Congress; and Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, a former federal prosecutor.
Bense did not return a phone call Friday. Bilirakis was in Israel and unavailable for comment, and Gelber doesn’t remember the legislation, he wrote in an email Friday.
The change, defense attorneys contend, has turned innocent acts into felonies.
They cite the case of Williams, the Sanford woman who was carrying the pills of a friend, and another man — not related to her — Robert Edward Williams, 44, of Longwood.
He went on trial last month in Sanford, charged with possession of a controlled substance — one alprazolam pill, an anti-anxiety medicine. He had a prescription for it, but because he had put it in a pill bottle with a different label, he was arrested, jailed and prosecuted, according to court records.
Judge Nelson halted the trial and dismissed the charge.
Assistant Public Defender Alpheus Parsons represented Williams.
“I think that’s crazy,” he argued. “The law can’t be like that.”
The Florida Attorney General’s Office plans to appeal Scriven’s and Hirsch’s rulings, said Eddins.